Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Brief Note

I was Kotaku'd and NeoGAF'd today and I don't have time to fully respond too all the comments, but there is something I need to make clear. This is a game design idea of my own. This isn't commercial or in production at Raven Software. This is what I do in my spare time. I am not trying to sell this or make it a multi-million dollar hit. Right now, I'm just trying to see if I can make it at all.

I will go into more detail and answer some questions people have soon.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Call to Arms: Bereavement in Blacksburg

Steve Gaynor, designer at 2K Marin and writer of the excellent Fullbright, posted a Call to Arms a couple of months ago. He asks for designs that “express through interaction an experience that the player will find meaningful-- something novel, poignant, interesting, personal, or enlightening.” I've been meaning to write down my design for a while, but just haven't had the time until now. Before I go into details of the game design I wanted to write a few personal notes to put it into context.

I graduated from Virginia Tech in 2004 and the events of April 16th, 2007 affected me as an alumnus and person. Not because I knew anyone directly affected by the attacks, but because I felt so saddened to see such a horrific act occur to a community that was so good to me. As anyone who knows me could tell you, I have an unwavering love for my alma mater. This leads to great amounts of school pride and also makes me feel constantly connected to the community, even though I now reside hundreds of miles away in Madison, WI.

To make a video game based around these events is difficult and delicate. Instead of dealing with the violence of the actual attacks, what struck me was the way the community rallied together to start the healing process. I wasn't in Blacksburg at this time, yet when I saw Professor Nikki Giovanni's impassioned poem “We Are Virginia Tech” followed by the crowd of thousands chanting “Let's Go Hokies”, I was moved to tears. Together, the community said “We will not let this be the defining moment in our lives or of our school.”

I wish to explore that feeling of togetherness and understanding of what it is like to go through the grieving process. I present my design, titled Bereavement in Blacksburg, and hope that it is a step in the right direction to expressing such feelings in an interactive medium. I fully admit these thoughts aren't fully fleshed out, even after I attempted to build this game for months, due to the difficulty with exploring these emotions and the scope that I felt it would take. However, I think it is best to write these thoughts down and put them in the public domain.

Bereavement in Blacksburg centers around the concept of loss and grief, and how people cope with it. The game takes place on April 17th, 2007, the day after the shootings. You plays as a male character who resides in a dorm on campus.

You begin the game laying in bed, early in the morning. The phone rings and goes to message. It's your girlfriend's voice and she's asking you to answer and talk with her. It is apparent from her dialog that you knew someone directly killed in the attacks. For obvious reasons, who that person is isn't revealed, nor is it relevant.

Once the message finishes, you take control of the character. From here the world is rather open. There are multiple objects to interact with in the opening room. You can use the phone to call your girlfriend back. You can use your computer and see e-mails from the administration, as well as condolences from friends. You can watch TV or listen to music to escape from things. You can turn to bottles of alcohol to drown your sorrows. Or you can just leave the room and venture to other parts of campus and find other interactions. The choices are yours and they affect the way your character progresses through the game.

Getting drunk and then talking to your girlfriend may cause you to speak in a belligerent or flippant manner. It may also make certain choices unavailable to you later, such as going to the school's convocation with her later. Speaking to her sober may open up a dialog that wouldn't occur otherwise, one that may have the character ultimately express his true feelings verbally.

Internally, the game keeps a “grief score”. You start at zero, and positive influencing interactions will increase this score and negative influencing actions will decrease it. However, the player is not aware of this scoring mechanism. In my experience, often during the grieving processes we do not see the whole picture of how our actions can positively or negatively affect us. Hiding the true outcome of different interactions helps proceduralize that state of mind.

The player has an idea that drinking isn't probably the best idea, however they may not realize how bad of an idea it may be. Additionally, this means different actions can have different values depending on the circumstances surrounding it. Using alcohol again as an example, drinking alone may be negative but drinking in moderation, with friends may be neutral or even positive.

As you leave your room and explore more of campus more interactions are available. You can write your thoughts in your journal or compose music that expresses your feelings. You can attempt to go on with life as if nothing is wrong, by just doing normal everyday things such as going out to dinner. You can stop going to classes, once they resume. You can visit the memorial erected to the victims. There are many possibilities available.

All of these minor interactions will force scripted major events, depending on your “grief score” at the time. The minor interactions of beginning to drink and never answering your girlfriend's phone calls may result in the major event of her breaking up with you. The minor interactions of regularly writing in your journal and communicating with others can lead to the major event of moving to the next stage of grief.

Ultimately, there should be multiple paths to end the game, just as there are in life. One can move through all the stages of grief, or become stuck at certain stages. The needs to be a clear end to all narrative paths. In the end, the game is one of choices and how these choices ultimately affect how we deal with grief.

My concerns with this design are numerous. Are there enough interactions available to make a meaningful experience out of? How does one define what are positive and negative choices? One person's positive choice could be another's negative. Also, does this actually help the player understand the grieving process or does it rely too heavily on narrative to push this feeling and just have simple interactions as the way to branch that narrative?

These are only some of the problems that exist with this design, but with enough time I think they can be conquered. I, unfortunately, just do not have that time currently. I consider this version 0.1 of the the high-level design and will continue to think of ways to solve these problems in this context. If anyone has ideas or wants to run with this game and try to make it, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - God of War: Chains of Olympus

God_of_War_Chains_of_Olympus_psp.jpgThe God of War series is known for its massive scale and fast paced, adrenaline fueled combat. When Sony announced a version of the series would be coming out for the PSP, many fans were worried. Luckily, the developer Ready at Dawn has done a great job of keeping all the core elements of the God of War series intact, and the series' antihero Kratos is back once again.

One of the core elements of the series has been the interactive events, where the player engages in scripted sequences by pressing buttons on the controller when prompted. Some of these sequences rely on timing (quick-time events), where one false move will force you to start over or die.

Other sequences allow you to interact at your own pace. For example, one sequence has the player make clockwise circles with the analog stick in order to pull down a statue and progress. You do not have to do this immediately, but you won't progress forward until you do so.

It seems that these events are either loved or loathed by most people. While they allow for scripted, specific events to occur within the game, the interactivity is limited to binary input (you either hit the button or you didn't). There is also the issue of the button to press appearing on the screen, something that can pull the player out of a state of sensual immersion. Even so, these events are capable of still drawing the player deeper into the narrative, thereby becoming effective plot devices.

At this point, I must mention that the remainder of this column contains a major plot spoiler for the game. Please do not continue reading if you would get upset at having major parts of the story revealed.

Design Lesson: Using interactive events at the climax of the game allows God of War: Chains of Olympus to create a closer, more emotional bond between the player and Kratos.

The set-up of the situation is rather simple, yet effective. In the first game it is revealed that Kratos unwillingly kills his own family. His entire life is spent trying to forget that atrocity. In this prequel to the first game, Kratos' family is already dead. As Kratos nears his end goal, he ends up in the underworld. There, he sees his deceased daughter, Calliope. Once reaching her, they embrace in a cutscene. Kratos promises Calliope he will never leave her again.

Kratos is told by Persephone, queen of the underworld, that if he wants to be reunited with his daughter, he must give up all of his power. At this point the player must remove the abilities, upgrades, and items from Kratos, by following a sequence of button presses that are displayed on screen.

This, in effect, makes the player feel as if he is choosing to remove his powers. This easily could have been a cutscene, but instead the designers allow the player to actually remove all of the abilities they have been working towards all game. This isn't done with just one button press. A series of prompts occur, making the entire event feel like a very deliberate choice, even if the choice doesn't actually exist in the game code.

Once the player is weakened another cutscene begins. Here, Persephone reveals to Kratos that it was all a trick and that while he weakened himself, she has set forth to destroy the entire world. At this point Kratos realizes that if he stays with his daughter Calliope, the entire world will be destroyed and his daughter with it. However, if he pursues Persephone to stop her, he will never see his daughter again and go back on his promise of never leaving her.

Just a child, Calliope hugs onto her father's leg, begging him not to leave her. There is but one choice for Kratos, unfortunately. However, again the game does not just have Kratos push away his daughter via cutscene. Instead, in-game it prompts the player to push the circle button over and over. As the player presses it, Kratos pushes his daughter further and further away from his leg.

Once he pushes her far enough away from him, she screams and latches onto his leg again. The player must once again repeat the process of pushing Kratos' crying daughter away. The sequence is repeated a third, and final time.

The emotional impact of such an event can be staggering. Kratos is a sympathetic antihero in gaming. You like him, even though he is deeply flawed and troubled. The reasons for liking him are that, deep down, he is human and has human emotions, such as love for his family.

By forcing the player push Calliope away multiple times, God of War: Chains of Olympus is able to forge a deeper, emotional bond between the player and Kratos and remind them of his humanity. Instead of the aggressive, bitter man, you see a saddened father for a moment. Kratos ceases to feel like a 2D caricature, if only for a moment.

In fact, I felt an amount of sadness pushing the crying little girl away. Soon, this sadness was replaced by anger. Anger at Persephone for making me forsake my daughter (I even thought in the first person, as if I were Kratos).

In fact, I was angry enough to make sure I beat Persephone, the game's final boss, the same night. Even though it was 2:00 in the morning, I had work the next day, I had died dozens of times, and the game forced me to watch the same cutscene every time I retried, I played for an hour to make sure I beat Persephone. I didn't want to wait until the next day. I wanted to know if Kratos would be reunited with Calliope somehow in the end. I wanted vengeance... just like Kratos did.

Both the losing of power and the pushing of Calliope away could have easily been cutscenes. By making them actually interactive, even if only on a simplistic level, God of War: Chains of Olympus creates an empathetic response to its story, during its critical climactic events. This creates a smaller gap between the player and Kratos.

When the player thinks and feels like character on screen, then there is a sense of being fully immersed. It may be impossible to ever get players to fully think like the characters on screen (at least in games with well-defined characters, and not empty avatar such as Gordon Freeman), but the closer we get the more we utilize the narrative power of this medium.

God of War: Chains of Olympus may not be ground-breaking in any way and may even be criticized for other ways it reminds the player that they are playing a game rather than being immersed in the game. However, for a short period of time it shows how to make the player feel empathy and emotion in what is otherwise thought of as a nothing more than a testosterone-fueled male power fantasy.

New Design Lesson 101 - God of War: Chains of Olympus

Read it now at Gamasutra or GameSetWatch.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Boom Blox or Bust

According to Game Daily, Steven Spielberg and EA's recent Wii game Boom Blox sold only 60,000 units in May. With an installed base of over 10 million in North America, that's not a whole lot of sales. This is just another piece of evidence that third party games on the Wii do not sell well in general.

I don't fully understand the reasons for this. I personally love Boom Blox, and I'm not even the target demographic. My best guess is that by expanding the market, Nintendo has hit a lot more people who aren't affected by advertising in the traditional matter. They will hear and trust Nintendo products, but third parties don't get the same benefit of the doubt. If Boom Blox was the exact same game, but published by Nintendo, I would bet the sales would be significantly better.

A game like Boom Blox should be a success in the marketplace, not an afterthought. Hopefully, publishers will start to find new ways to reach people with marketing and sell to the more casual crowd who doesn't read gaming websites and magazines. This is the only way a console like the Wii will become the normal, instead of powerhouses like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 being how consoles are developed each generation.

The third-party publishers have to be on board for this, and as of now, it doesn't seem like they have a huge reason to.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - World in Conflict

worldinconflict.jpgThe majority of real-time strategy games on the market follow a similar formula: collect resources, build a base, pump out units, research upgrades, demolish enemy, win. Resources are at the core of the strategy in these games. Given two similarly skilled players, it can often be expected that the player with the most resources will win the game.

These systems rely on divvying up the resources among the players in the game. One player gathering resources reduces available resources for another player at any given moment. When there is a fixed amount of resources on the map, it reduces available resources for other players permanently.

Massive goes a different route with the resources in World in Conflict and is able to create a more intimate experience because of it.

Design Lesson: World in Conflict minimizes resource management, allowing the game to concentrate on constant action through tactics rather than large build times

World in Conflict has a simple resource management system. The player is given a fixed amount of resources to obtain units with. Shortly after you requisition units, they are air-dropped into the game, eliminating the need for building bases. Immediately, this leads to a unit-centric, tactical feel to the entire game.

By giving the player a fixed pool of resources, the decisions that have to be made are reduced, but not minimized. You must still make unit selections. Do you wish to have a mix of air and ground forces, or would you rather have a squad of heavy tanks that are vulnerable from air attacks?

Once those decisions are made, the player attempts to take their objectives. The number of units being controlled are usually under a dozen (in single player at least), so every unit matters. When a unit dies, however, the resources that were allocated to obtain the unit are not lost forever.

Instead, what World in Conflict does is return the resources to the player. Not immediately, however. Instead, the resources trickle back in over time. Your resources aren't constrained by how well or poor you are doing in the game (at least not constrained for very long).

By doing this, World in Conflict avoids the snowball effect that exists in many real-time strategy games. In many games once a player gets the upper hand, it quickly snowballs into victory without much chance for retaliation by the opposition.

The death of one unit can be replaced, but not immediately. You may have to wait a couple minutes in order to be able to afford replacing that unit. If you incorrectly spent all your unit points on an air force, only to find the enemy base swarming with anti-air defenses, you can get tanks next time instead.

There still is a disadvantage to losing units, however. There needs to be consequences for a players choices, both positive and negative. Otherwise, the tactical decisions made will be meaningless.

In World in Conflict, the negative consequence of losing a unit is the time it takes to get a replacement. Having less units affects the player's ability to hold control points. Holding control points affects the drop-position of new units. If the player is forced to drop units further back from the front line of battle, it's more difficult to reinforce, take new control points, and make positive progress in the game.

Due to this, the player cannot just haphazardly throw units towards the enemy. Throwing an entire squad off to die isn't viable. It will take a decent amount of time to fully regroup. You may be on a timed objective, meaning each second is critical.

With so few units per player, it is important to make each unit and decision count. This combined with the fact that you don't have the manage building bases, means the player is working directly with the units for the majority of the game.

By directly working with the units, the player is involved in the action more often. You are not managing a fight on four different fronts. Instead, you are making sure your mortars are taking out distant targets, and that your anti-air guns are eliminating incoming helicopters. You are making regular, tactical decisions rather than just defaulting to whatever the AI wishes to do with your units.

This creates a more intimate feel to the combat, since you deal with small numbers of units. Additionally, this style leads to more constant action within the game. There is rarely a case where you build up an army to march over the enemy. Instead, you quickly receive units and move them to strategic locations for combat.

You are constantly, actively engaging in combat and squad tactics, not deciding what discipline to research for upgrades and building up base defenses. World in Conflict, more often than not, is a game about taking, not defending.

With this, Massive has been able to make not only an excellent game, but one which caters to many types of gamers. It has a feeling of constant action, not one of waiting. This opens up the genre and makes it potentially more palatable for gamers who do not like the slower pace of many real-time strategy games.

At the same time there are enough tactics involved on the unit level to make decisions important and deep, for the real-time strategy fan. This gives World in Conflict a unique feel from most other real-time strategy games and helps it feel new and interesting during play.

Bonus Design Lesson: The intimate approach to tactics in World in Conflict allows the game to tell a strong, emotional story

In the single player campaign, the USSR invades Seattle during the Cold War. In it, you plays as Lieutenant Parker, who is commanding a squad during the invasion.

The story introduces you to a number of characters through in-game cinematics, dialog during play, and out of game cinematics. There's a Captain who often doesn't listen to authority. There's the Colonel who consistently takes big risks. There's the grunts who you get to know on a personal level.

There is a real story going on here, with actual characters, and Massive works hard at trying to forge an attachment between the player and the characters. You learn about their back-stories. You learn why they are fighting, what they've been through in their pasts, and how they react to adversity.

This is reinforced in-game by the small squads you control. By having such a unit-centric approach to the game, I often felt empathy for my units. In games, such as Relic's Dawn of War, I have often just amassed the largest army possible, damn the casualties, and marched forward to victory.

Because this isn't possible in World in Conflict, my emotional attachment to my individual units was greater. I didn't want to lose units, not just due to tactical issues, but because I actually felt like a Lieutenant commanding a company of soldiers (at least what I imagine that would feel like). I felt empathy for the characters in the game. I got chills at times and even felt a small amount of sadness at specific points in the game.

None of this could have been accomplished without feeling that close, intimate attachment to the units of World in Conflict. The design decision to make a game focus on a small force of units, rather than large armies, enhanced my empathetic response to the story, as my emotion bond to the characters was reinforced by the gameplay itself.

This results in a well-told narrative, filled with emotion and character, something which many real-time strategy games lack.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

New Design Lesson 101 - World in Conflict

Ten games in ten weeks is complete. You can view the latest article at GameSetWatch and Gamasutra.