Friday, July 9, 2010

Phase Two Begins

I'm very excited to announce that I've accepted a position at BioWare Montreal as a Senior Level Designer working on the Mass Effect franchise. As a huge fan of BioWare and the Mass Effect series, this is a fantastic opportunity to learn from and work with some of the best designers in the business. I look forward to contributing to an amazing series and I hope you follow my next set of adventures in Montreal. I'm hoping to be out there by September, but it is dependent on the whole Canadian Visa situation. Thanks to everyone for their support and well wishes!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Phase One Complete

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or know me personally may have already heard that I decided to resign my position as Lead Designer at Raven Software this past Tuesday, June 8. This wasn't an easy decision, but a necessary one for me. I'm really thankful and grateful for all the opportunities Raven has given me the past five years. They've let me spread my wings and grow as an individual and help play a key role in developing games. I cannot explain how much I've loved working here the past five years.

My decision to leave is my own and it's based off of personal needs, not any anger or animosity towards anyone at Raven or Activision. I have not decided where I am going yet - I am still in the process of evaluating offers and interviewing at studios. As soon as I've made a final decision, I will let everyone know.

Thanks so much for the support and look for an announcement (hopefully) soon!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflections of a Five Year Vet

Five years ago I started a journey that I had been anticipating for quite some time. I was finally going to work in the industry. The video game industry. The industry I had wanted to work in since I was 15 years old. By “wanted to work in”, I don't mean that I thought it would be fun to work in the video game industry, like so many young people I meet who inquire about getting a job. I mean, I was actively working to learn programming, making games in my spare time, and absorbing as much knowledge as possible. I knew I wanted to someday be a creative director or lead designer, but that game design wasn't something people hired new talent into. So I embarked on a journey to learn how to make video games on my own.

Seven years later I had a degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech, an understanding of the industry, contacts that would help me get a foot in the door, and an immense passion to succeed. I've been a driven person my entire life. I'm rarely content with my standing and always looking to do better. I judge myself harshly and push myself hard. It's this drive which got me into the industry.

I was confident
I was scared

Year One
And so, in May of 2005, I accepted my first job in the video game industry as a programming intern at Big Huge Games, on the real-time strategy title Rise of Legends. I started shortly after E3 finished up that year, where the team had just announced their follow-up to the acclaimed Rise of Nations. A talented, passionate bunch led by legendary designer Brian Reynolds, Big Huge Games was a AAA studio near my hometown of Rockville, MD that was willing to give me a chance. I immediately felt like a fish out of water. People were having intelligent conversations in the hallways about games in ways I had never thought about them. I was in awe, each and every day, and ecstatic to be working in the industry. I had greatly disliked the world of academia; the structure and requirements never suited me well. I felt that, finally, after embarking on the journey at the age of 15, I had made it.

What I hadn't considered was that the real journey was just starting. A month after starting at Big Huge Games, Raven Software decided they wanted to hire me full-time. While I felt awful for leaving Big Huge Games so soon after starting, Raven was a studio that I not only had known for a long time but that also offered a full-time gameplay programming position, instead of an internship. This meant, instead of writing code for save/load systems like I was at Big Huge Games, Raven would let me write game systems for weapons, vehicles, inventory, controls, and all of the other design oriented tasks that I was interested and suited for. I took the plunge, accepted the offer, and moved up to Madison, Wisconsin.

I was excited
I was scared

I was immediately put onto Wolfenstein during its early stages of development. When I got to Raven at the end of June, 2005 we were in a transitory period. Raven had just moved into a new swank set of offices, was set to launch X-Men Legends II: Rise of the Apocalypse and Quake 4 that fall, with the latter being one of the first launch titles for the Xbox 360. Raven was expanding its staff, on a new console generation for the first time, and in a new set of offices all at the same time. It was hitting the same problems many studios hit around this time too; the staffing issue. It used to be 20-30 people could make a AAA game. Now you need over 70 to make a good game. That's why they took chances on guys like me, to come in and make a difference.

The first few months were great. I was just excited to have a job and be working on what I considered one of the great game franchises in Wolfenstein. After the initial honeymoon period wore off, I started to see the seedy underbelly of game development. Quake 4 shipped and didn't exactly light up the charts. In fact, in a press release id Software's Todd Hollenshead stated that “On October 18, QUAKE is dialing it up to 4.0 on the Richter Scale with this new chapter in Earth's war against the Strogg.“ That a 4.0 on the Richter Scale is considered a “light earthquake” his words may have been more poignant than anyone actually realized at the time.

Hatred is not the opposite of love; apathy is. Hatred requires passion, it's a deeply emotional state. Apathy is the lack of any emotion. So when Quake 4 was met with apathy by both critics and consumers, the toll that took on much of that development team was significant. Many of those team members were brought onto Wolfenstein. They saw many of the same problems on Wolfenstein which they felt held Quake 4 back from being a superior product. And so, misery turned into frustrations, frustrations turned into anger, and anger turned into resignations. Over the next 18 months at Raven, a very large number of people left. Many of them were my friends. Some stayed in the industry, others left the business forever. I had, for the first time, started to experience the dark side of development. The part that chews people up and spits them out.

The anger of my colleagues and the mass resignations made me realize how unhappy I was. I didn't want to get up and go to work in the morning. I didn't like my job. I didn't believe in the game. I didn't like that every week someone new would leave. I was in a dark place, brooding everyday, drinking more and more. My only friends were people I worked with, leading to drunken evenings where we would sit around and bitch forever.

I was hopeful
I was frustrated

Year Two
Sometimes, when you least expect it, life tosses you curveball. I was drinking a lot around this time. Frequently in times of stress and misery I have turned to alcohol as a way of coping, and this time was no different. This night, however, wasn't about drinking my sorrows away. My best friend from Maryland was in town visiting me, and we were out having a great time, reminiscing. I never could have anticipated what was going to happen that night and how it would change my life forever.

Sitting at the bar, talking with my friend, I noticed a beautiful woman walk up and order a drink. Knowing that I only had one shot to make a good impression, I did the only thing that made sense at the time; I made a racial joke about Indians. She too was Indian and laughed. Soon we began to talk and flirt and I quickly realized that this woman was actually intelligent, witty, and charming and not like most of the girls I met. To everyone's surprise, I didn't scare her off and soon we began to date. My first real relationship in quite some time, not counting the countless philandering one does in college, I was immediately smitten with her.

I was angry
I was in love

This love affair started at just the right time. I was starting to think about quitting and going to a new studio, even though I hadn't shipped a game yet. I was angry that things weren't going better at work. This was my dream job and it wasn't going as planned. This new relationship gave me a reprieve from my own dark thoughts and tendencies.

I've been a loner my whole life; as a child, I'd often play by myself instead of needing other kids to keep me entertained. Being alone, however, during dark periods means that you have nothing to distract you from yourself. TV, video games, and movies all only work temporarily. As soon as your head hits the pillow, it's just you and your own mind. And so, every night I would lie down and not fall asleep as my brain spun at 100 MPH about all the issues with the game, the people, who was leaving, and anything else that wasn't going well in my life. This manifestation of insomnia literally started to kill me. I was getting four hours of sleep a night and usually drinking myself to sleep to turn my brain off. I would come into work a zombie, not put forth the effort that got me here in the first place, and go home a zombie, continuing the cycle of alcohol abuse and insomnia.

This new relationship gave me something to think about other than how miserable I was. For the first time in my life, I truly cared about someone other than myself. I thought about how much I loved spending time with her. I thought about all the fun conversations we had and the movies and TV shows we would share. I no longer was suffering from insomnia. I'd fall asleep just fine every night next to her. I'd wake up at 6:00 every morning while she got ready for school. I did all of this without any problems, because I had something I had been missing for quite sometime: something other than work to focus on.

But, as they say, all good things come to an end. As she was in her final year of med school, very early on I knew there was a strong chance she would be moving elsewhere to start residency. In fact, she didn't want to be in Madison anymore, as much as she loved being with me. And so, our relationship was on a timer from day one and eventually, just over a year after we met, time ran out. No matter how much I knew it was going to happen, nothing prepared me for the feelings that would ensue.

I was heartbroken
I was heartbroken

Year Three
Breakups are tough, and I had been through my share, but this one hurt more. Work was still going poorly, though I hadn't noticed as much since I had the distraction of a girl for a year. But there I was, stuck in my own head, drinking myself to sleep as the end of a relationship and realizations of the industry begun to weigh down on me once again.

Life, once again, decided to lend a helping hand and hope started to arrive. Some new creative decision makers were brought in at work and where it felt like there was no hope, at least opened up to become a glimmer of hope. After being angry and miserable for a month after she left, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. I knew that I needed to distract myself to stop from being miserable. And so, I decided to take all my anger and channel it into something useful. I decided to funnel it all into the game.

I've always been a person with a chip on his shoulder. I've always felt like I have something to prove. When I haven't had something to prove, I've found myself inventing perceived slights to get myself worked up. When I take this anger and channel it into something positive, amazing results occur. It is the drive for success. I will outwork anyone, if I talk myself into it. I will not accept failure from myself and I will work myself to death to avoid failure. Undirected, however, this energy sends me spiraling into loops of self-destructive behavior. Compulsive drinking and eating are the usual starts. I knew I couldn't let this energy go undirected and manifest in self-destruction.

And so, all that energy got funneled into not getting mad about the game, but rather being constructive with the new leadership about how to fix the game. I was still a gameplay programmer at the time, and I started writing up documents on all the major systems. I'd identify their flaws, state what works and doesn't work, and list recommendations to fix the problem. I would do this regularly, so regularly in-fact that the new creative director set up a weekly meeting to go over my issues with the game.

Feeling like someone was listening and that I could make a difference, a feeling I hadn't had in some time, I began to speak up to the rest of the disgruntled staff. I told them it was our jobs to stand up for our game and fight for what's right. I told them we can't accept the status quo when we know it's not good enough. Others stood up beside me and said the same thing. And so, an internal revolution was born. A revolution, for me at least, born out of my need to be distracted from the biggest heartbreak of my life.

I was a revolutionary
I was heartbroken

Soon, the creative direction of the game started to sway in a more positive direction due to the hard work of all the team members and the new leadership. Scrapping many of the more outlandish game ideas for more traditional ones, we refocused the project. I refocused myself to my job, instead of just accepting bad design. I was doing many things that weren't specific to my job title, but with no one else doing them on the team I felt someone had to step up and ask the tough questions.

And so, a few months later the creative director asked me if I wanted to be a game designer instead of a gameplay programmer. I jumped at the opportunity; sure, programmers made more money but I only learned to program so I could design. Raven didn't have game designers, just level designers and encounter designers, so the thought of someone overseeing more of the systems, tweaking balance, and having a bigger picture of the game in mind was not only something that was desperately needed, but something I was incredibly interested in.

The new position brought new responsibilities. With that increased responsibility came increased workload. Still sad in my personal life from the loss of love, I was keeping my energy focused in work. The more and harder that I worked, the less I remember the pain I had. I knew I wanted to avoid the self-destructive behaviors that I'm capable of, so I vowed to put every ounce of energy into making Wolfenstein the best game it could be in the time we had left.

I was ecstatic
I was heartbroken

Year Four
There was a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in. When you care so much about the game, you are willing to do anything it takes to succeed. There are no excuses; players don't care if you worked 10 hours or 100 hours. They only care if what they play is awesome. This is where another deep, dirty side of the industry reared its ugly face. In the three years I had been at Raven, rarely I crunched. But now we were a year out from shipping a game, a game we just effectively restarted.

The team was committed to putting out the best game we could. We worked our asses off. We worked long, brutal hours to make the game better. No one would have to ask; everyone knew what their job was and wanted the best quality possible.

The problem with loving what you do is that you will let your passion take over. At least I will. My passion is in creating. It's in letting people have new experiences. And so, if I work 40 hours a week and a game ships and there is something that I could have fixed had I worked a couple extra hours that ended up in the game, I'm going to be furious at myself. I will know that I had the power to make it better and I didn't.

So, like many people, I end up pushing myself hard. No one told me to. No one asked me to. I knew I had to work harder, but no one meant to the extent that I did. No, I did this because I wanted to. Because I wanted the game to be better. Because I knew we were running out of time. Because I knew, if I didn't, I would have to deal with the fact that inside I was still damaged.

I was focused
I was hurt

The human body and mind can't work that hard for that long without consequences. What's more interesting, is that you know you are working at an unsustainable pace as you are doing it, yet refuse to stop. You sacrifice long-term health for short-term goals. It's unhealthy, and yet what I did for nearly a year on Wolfenstein.

In August, 2009 the game finally shipped. After four years of hard work, I finally shipped my first title. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was possibly the happiest day of my life. I never experienced a single day or moment of such happiness. This was a volcanic rush of joy, the feeling of a creation you worked on so hard with a team of dedicated people finally being released to the public, ready for their consumption. I was and still am so incredibly proud of the effort the team put in to make that game what it was. It was a flawed game, and we knew it, but we also knew that we put so much love and effort into that game that people would still get enjoyment out of it, even if it wasn't destined to be a 90+ rated game.

I was elated
I was exhausted

Year Five
The highs of launch lasted for a bit, but were quickly followed by lows. Wolfenstein, like Quake 4 before it, didn't tear up the sales charts. Our reviews were decent, but not as high as we wanted. So, frustrations set in again. Except this time, I knew to channel them into something positive.

Determined to fix things for the next game, I started to plan for how to do things better. Wolfenstein didn't have a formal design department nor did we have a lead designer. This was one of the flaws of the team. With a lack of leadership, as well as me being a strong leader and having what I felt was a good design sense, I pushed those in charge to give me a shot as a lead designer on the next title. I was incredibly fortunate that a trusting group of people all said yes and gave me a shot, even though I was only four years into my career in the industry at this point. And so in August 2009, I became the lead designer on an unannounced title.

I was scared
I was excited

The excitement of that time was quickly reduced when I found out we had to let people go, for the first time in Raven's history. As a new manager, I had to help with this situation. Having to look someone in the eye who busted their ass to make a game, who has a family to feed, who has been loyal to the studio for quite some time and let them know that their position is untenable is one of the most unpleasant experiences in my life. I knew it had to happen and was for the ultimate good, but that doesn't make a difference when you have to deliver that news.

Worse, for me personally, was the exhaustion I was suffering from. For over a year I had been neglecting my blog, not reading as much, going home and just sleeping and then coming to work. I was becoming a zombie again. I didn't play games for almost a year at one point. I worked myself so hard that I burned myself out. I was tired, exhausted, but I was also a new lead which meant I had a lot of work to do. I started drinking more heavily again. There were some good things I was doing; I was training for my first ever marathon which I ran in October of that year. But that didn't overcome all the negative, self-destructive behaviors I was once again engaging in. I burned myself out, because I sacrificed the long-term for the short-term.

As we started to amass a new team, regroup, and fix the mistakes of the past I had to work extra hard to keep up. There was no lead designer before me, so I had to turn to other peers in the industry often for guidance. I just wanted to take six months off to recover, but I knew to be an effective leader I had to lead by example. And so I helped rebuild the design department, a department that now is doing better than ever. I am fortunate enough to work with a talented group of people who make me love my job. They push me and inspire me to excel everyday and I hope I do the same back.

What the last five years has taught me, more than anything, is that I am capable of love. I loved a woman and she became my passion and meant the world to me. What I didn't realize was that when she was gone I didn't stop loving. I began to truly love my job for the first time. When I started in the industry it was just lust; it was new, it was sexy, it was fun. But that got squashed early when the realities of this industry set in. It took her to show me true love and leave me for me to realize I could apply that energy elsewhere. She showed me how to focus myself and my energies, and for that I thank her forever.

I've also realized, however, that there may only be so much room in my heart. Since I've started loving my job, I've found no time or energy to love anyone else. I've had meaningless relationships and flings, but nothing lasting. I don't have the time or energy for it. I am putting so much of myself into my job, that I don't wish to spend that time on a relationship. In fact, I don't know how I could possibly love someone and love my job at the same time. I can't balance my personal and professional life when I love only one, I cannot imagine what will happen if I love both. I am again sacrificing the long-term health for short-term goals.

I love myself
I hate myself

I've done some amazing things in my career. If you told me I'd be a lead designer on a high-profile game five years into my career I would have called you a nut job. If you told me I'd be speaking at high-profile conferences like GDC and DICE, I would say you have no idea what you are talking about. If you told me that I would learn what it is to love and how to apply that to the rest of my life, I would have shook my head and said that love was for the romantics not the computer scientists. I've met and been inspired by people who made the games I played when I was a kid. I've gotten into discussions on life, the universe, and everything with some of the smartest people in the world.

I've made many mistakes as well. I've been a poor son at times to my wonderful parents. I've been an even worse brother. I've pushed those close to me away to protect myself from being hurt again. I've abused alcohol and food and gotten myself into trouble as a result of both. I've isolated myself from others at times. I've come to the realization that the amount of work it will take to succeed at the levels I expect from myself may require destruction of all other parts of my being. I've come to the realization that, I may be okay with that. That is a scary thought and not one I thought I was capable of.

See, the fallacy of ambition is that those who are the most ambitious are also the least capable of appreciating success. Ambition is a moving mark, that gets higher and higher as you progress. You can never succeed enough, if you are truly ambitious. And so, instead of being happy or content, you are tortured, wanting to better and capable of loathing yourself. That's how I feel. I've succeeded, yet I've not done enough. I worry that if I keep going down this path, that I will die alone and miserable. But I also worry that if I don't go down this path, I will die unsatisfied by life and knowing that I could have done better.

My career is a failure
My career is a success

I have felt the good and the bad at the same time throughout my career. I am Schrodinger's Designer, simultaneously in a state of negative and positive emotions. At any given moment you may observe me to only be in one of those two states, but know deep inside that it's far more complex. You only see the outer-shell, the face I put on for the world, the mask I wear.

That's because, deep down, I am actually a romantic. I want to be in love. I look for love. I am in love with this industry, with this job, with video games. Love has its ups and downs. Love hurts at times, forces you to confront who you really are. Love can send you spiraling down into a self-destructive path just as easily as it can lift you up and save you. Love is both positive and negative at the same time. It's all encompassing and all consuming.

Love, it turns out, is the one thing I was missing in my life five years ago that I now have. I may struggle with how to manage my life, how to balance the personal and the professional, but I will never regret the decisions I've made. Every single decision I've made to this point has been the right one, even if it hurt and seemed wrong in the immediacy. Because, in the end I followed what I love and love is never wrong. It just is.

I love my life

Sunday, March 7, 2010

DICE Panel and GDC Panel - Diversity and Race in Games

Been very hectic lately, but a couple of quick links. I recently was on a panel at DICE titled Games of Color, which was about the diversity (or lack thereof) of our in-game characters. It was a good, frank talk about the issues that games have right now and how we can improve them, and why it's a good idea from a creative and business sense. G4 has put up a video of the entire panel online, for your viewing pleasure (Yes, they accidentally got the names of Navid and I incorrect). There is also an interview with me in Develop on the subject.

This week is GDC and I'm on a panel there, titled What Color Is Your Hero? It's a similar panel, but not same one - we have new panelists and new questions. Our DICE talk concentrated more on the business aspects of the issue, and I'd like our GDC talk to concentrate more on the creative aspects. It's on Friday from 1:30-2:30 pm in the North Hall, so if you are going to be at GDC I hope you can stop by and hear and discuss this very important topic.

Proper blog posts will be coming shortly after GDC is over. I promise!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Podcast, Another Podcast

Somehow I totally forgot to post this up. I was once again a guest on The Brainy Gamer podcast where I joined Chris Dahlen and Michael Abbott to talk about video games (duh!). We talked about ambiguity in games, The Path, social networking, and much more. Check it out and the rest of the podcasts in the series.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Save This!

Because my Xbox 360 finally died I decided to play some older games that have been waiting for me in a stack for some time. One of these games is Killzone (the original not the PS3 sequel). An average shooter, the game convinced me to stop playing it after about 20 minutes. Not because of the sloppy controls or the combat. No, it convinced me to not play it because I died.

Not because the game killed me in a cheap manner. My death was entirely my fault. Rather, it's where the game restarted me. About 8 minutes earlier in the game, at the beginning of the level in fact. I had gone through three major events since then and the game hadn't saved the game a single time in there.

What the bloody hell?

I absolutely don't understand why checkpoints are far apart from each other like this in some games. I remember Resistance: Fall of Man frustrating me endlessly as I replayed huge sections of the game every time I died. The recent Ninja Gaiden games make you go through multiple boss fights without saving sometimes. This is an absolutely punishing, horrible way to treat players. Furthermore, it's hurting our ability to grow the audience and get more people into gaming.

Why? Because a player's time is precious. We are all busy people in this world. We have lives, jobs, families, and responsibilities. The amount of time we can game isn't huge. Every time you make the player replay large sections of your game because you want to artificially make the game more difficult, you give them an out to quit your game and go be entertained by something else. Maybe they'll go watch TV. Maybe they'll play Guitar Hero. Or maybe they'll write an angry blog post talking about how this design is piss-poor.

Forcing players to replay large sections of your game after death is a barrier to entry for many players and a clean, easy place to opt out for most. Ask yourself this. What's more important? That the player get through 10 minutes of gameplay without dying or that the player keep playing your game? I would guess that the vast majority of the time the goal is for the latter to occur. That gets people playing and enjoying more of your game. It gets them to tell their friends or have other people try the game. If you really want to punish players for dying, why not make it only on your hardest difficulties for those players who want that sort of challenge?

We're getting better at this as an industry but still have a long way to go. The answer isn't, in my mind, let the player save anywhere. It's almost 2010. Save state should be invisible to the player. The player should never worry about if the game is saved and how to reload and which reload to use. The game should automatically do the right thing. I'm not saying we need to go the Bioshock or Prey model and remove any punishment from death. I'm saying a light slap on the wrist is sufficient. Don't kick me in the scrotum.

There are, as always, exceptions. Survival horror games would lose much of the horror if there wasn't a significant negative consequence for death. Games who's appeal is purely based around extreme challenge would also fit in as an exception. Most games, however, implement checkpoints poorly due to them being low on the rung of important things to do during development of the game. Sometimes they are the last thing to get put in. Other times, no one is checking them to make sure they aren't too far apart.

This isn't a good reason. We need to break the mold that punishes the players for playing and trying, and instead let players embrace failure not fear it. Let's start treating our players with some amount of decency and maybe they'll actually finish our games. The best part is, this is an easy to solve problem that just takes some forethought and common sense and testing to make sure you got it right.

We can do so much better. Let's start.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Life is a Series of Down Endings

Lately I've been thinking a lot about game endings and how they aren't living up to expectations. I'm the type of gamer who goes out of his way to beat a game if I start it. I want to know how the story goes, no matter how insipid it is. However, I find myself being more and more frustrated with video game endings. Most of them end predictably. Or they end with a horrible cliffhanger that has no closure, all in the name of the all-mighty sequel.

Why don't we see more ambiguous or downer endings in games? These sorts of endings are prevalent in film and novels. Blade Runner spawned the debate on whether Deckard was a replicant or not for many years. 2001: A Space Odyssey's surreal ending has confused generations of people. 12 Monkeys and Se7en have two of my favorite endings in film history, both with protagonist "losing" in the end.

So why not games? Does player agency mean that players are unwilling to accept that their actions could still not save the day? Or are we, as an industry, too immature to know how to pull off a sad ending? Or do we just lack a set of balls?

We need to explore concepts further such as sacrifice, symbolism, tragedy, fate, inevitability, and failure in our games. We should be willing to do something outlandish that will cause players to talk about the game and consider the ramifications of what they just experienced. We shouldn't be scared to incite outcry in players, just to sell sequels. We don't do these things to anger and piss off players, but rather to push players to new levels of understanding. Life, after all, is a series of down endings if you believe Dante from Clerks.

Of course downer endings can also backfire. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wolfenstein Released

I'm really happy to announce that Wolfenstein is now on store shelves in North America and should be slowly trickling onto store shelves worldwide over the next few days. The game has been a long time coming for us at Raven and we're very proud of the game at the end of the day. I hope you are able to find the time and money to pick up a copy of the game and check it out. It's a really fun shooter experience that I think any action fan will enjoy.

Big thanks to everyone who supported us during the development of this game, id for the awesome license and help, Activision for the support throughout the life of the project, Endrant for the multiplayer component, and all the Wolfenstein fans.

Like any game, Wolfenstein isn't perfect and we understand that. We're getting overall positive reviews so far and I'm sure reviews will continue to trickle in over the next couple weeks. So I'd love to hear what you love about the game and what you didn't love. I want to know what works and doesn't work for you as a gamer. This way we can learn some lessons and improve for our next game. You can add a comment to this thread or hit me up on on Twitter and I'll try to respond.

On to the next game!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Design Lesson 101 - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

drake.jpgMonsters are a key part of our culture. Whether it's vampires, werewolves, zombies, or any number of weird creatures we've created in video games, monsters have always been a huge draw. Much of Greek mythology revolves around the slaying of monsters such as the Hydra and Medusa.

The concept of something wholly sinister, wholly inhuman, and wholly foreign to us scares us and enthralls us. These creatures don't exist in the real world, so instead we read about them, watch them on film, and of course kill them in video games.

The thing about monsters is they often represent something very supernatural and different. As a result, they can act anyway we want them to and players will buy it. A monster can fly, teleport to any location, or turn you to stone by looking at you and players are willing to suspend any disbelief because monsters don't need to act like humans. However, when we put monsters in a game, this freedom can pose a problem. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, by Naughty Dog, exhibits this problem towards the end of the game with the introduction of monster enemies.

Design Lesson: When introducing new enemies, it's important to build off of the original strategies of combat instead of creating a completely different style of combat that is at odds with the player's original combat strategies

That's a long way of saying, don't make me change the way I play your game completely when you've taught me to play a certain way for the last six hours. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune spends a lot of time teaching you to use cover. It teaches you to stay behind cover, to move from cover to cover, to pick your shots and execute them carefully. It's not Halo, where you run around circle-strafing and firing from the hip.

That is until you get towards the end of the game and the monsters show up. Let's ignore the fact that monsters didn't fit my narrative view of the game world (I viewed the game world as being a realistic world, whereas I've had friends tell me that they viewed it as more of an Indiana Jones style world where monsters do exist). The issue is that the behaviors and optimal way to defeat the monsters is completely at odds with the combat for regular enemies.

The monsters have a melee attack only and frankly it's rather powerful. They also have a tendency to swarm you and move fast, making it hard to aim and take them out methodically. They will attack you at once and kill you fast. You cannot sit still. The monsters encourage a frenetic set of behaviors. In fact, they encourage behaviors that are the exact opposite of what you do the rest of the game.

The first time I encountered the monsters I tried to line up my shots and aim faster, not moving much from where I was. I died an awful lot doing this. Then I picked up the shotgun, started to run around in circles and fired from the hip instead of aiming, letting the auto-aim take control. This is how I succeeded. Combat completely changed with these enemies. There I was running around in circles like an idiot just firing over and over until everyone was dead, instead of jumping from cover to cover, thinking about how to flank the enemy, and being patient.

So why is the run and gun strategy to kill the monsters so bad? Because nothing in the game ever prepared me for this style of combat. In fact, the game actively discouraged this style of combat, by killing me if I tried to run and gun. I was taught, and fast, that I needed to be cautious. Instead of having their monsters build upon the basic behaviors and strategies I had already learned, Naughty Dog opted to have me change the way I played the game dramatically.

Instead, it would have been better for the game to encourage new behaviors and strategies that built upon the previous ones. For example, the monsters could required me to quickly move between cover and take shots instead of being cautious and biding my time, due to a ranged attack they have.

This would still have me using cover, trying to take the careful shot, but make me do it at a far quicker pace and up the tempo of the game. Or the monsters could have been used in conjunction with other enemies to make them stronger and more powerful, making it so I needed to take out the monsters first to make my own life easier. The game would force me to prioritize my enemies due to threat.

There are a number of ways the monsters could have been implemented better in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. It's a shame that they weren't. Fortunately the monsters aren't introduced until late in the game and they aren't too prevalent even late. It certainly didn't ruin the game experience, but there was potential to take the game to the next level and I think the game missed that potential with their decision.

Having the monsters' AI force the player to build upon already taught strategies would have made the enemies more fun, engaging, and fit the game better. Instead, they feel out of place. Hopefully, this will be fixed in the upcoming Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Until then, I can only hope any monsters reading this column will heed this advice and try to “play nice” with the rest of the game.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Designing Ethical Dilemmas Video and Slides - The Longer Version

Last week I got the chance to give a 30 minute version of my Designing Ethical Dilemmas talk at the Madison Chapter IGDA meeting. I expanded on a number of points, included some basic theory, and overall fleshed out some of the ideas. I still think there are some parts that need work, but slowly expanding the talk has helped me understand the concepts better as a result. I'm hoping to really nail this talk down and refine it some more, so I'm going to continue to research and consider the ideas to really nail them down as well as how to expand the concept from dilemmas to full ethical game systems.

There is video available of the talk. I would love for you to check it out and give me some feedback. Also, I've uploaded my slides (which are also partially embedded in the video thanks to the diligent work of Matthew Ciarlante). You can get the basic points from the slides, but I think the talk is obviously a better way to digest the information.