Thursday, July 31, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden

Narrative and story are the backbone of many games, like BioShock, Gears of War, and Crysis. These games use their back-story as a way to immerse the player into their world. Every element of these games, from their voice-overs to their level design, all tell a story that helps support the rest of the game.

Often what occurs in these games are little flaws that momentarily draw a player out of the game world. A character in a sci-fi game could say a line that is considered an anachronism from the 21st century; a game full of realistic enemies could suddenly introduce monsters that don't fit the rest of the world.

This is usually due to player expectations that are set by the production values, the story, and often a serious tone that games take of themselves. The indie production Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, however, manages to avoid all of these issues through a number of design decisions and constraints.

Design Lesson: Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden's irreverent universe and style create a world where literally anything can happen, allowing the player to believe in even the most unbelievable of events and drawing the player into the world more than many of its commercial counterparts

To understand what I mean by irreverent, let's quickly recap the story of the game. The year is 2053 and you are Charles Barkley, former NBA star and citizen of Neo-New York. Twelve years previously, you performed a Chaos Dunk, a slam dunk so devastating that it killed many and led to basketball being outlawed and many of the great players killed in “The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041”. Now, 15 million have died in Manhattan due to a Chaos Dunk and you are being blamed.

If that sounds utterly ridiculous to you, it's because it is. That's just the intro to the story, the actual game itself plays out even more ludicrously. You meet a dwarf from outer space that has skin made out of basketballs, fight the dreaded Ghost Dad, who looks just like Bill Cosby, and even come across Harriet Tubman in the Underground Railroad. Nothing is off-bounds in this game - and that's what makes it work.

The best part is it all makes sense from a narrative perspective when you play the game. It's random, sure, but as a player I bought it. After the mood of the game was set with the opening cinematic, I was prepared for everything. Tales of Game's gave me even more.

Instead of trying to tell a serious story, it seems as if the developers just did whatever seemed funny to them. As a result, nothing in the game that could ever happen would feel out of place. If Jesus came from the sky during a battle, and fought against Charles Barkley, you would say to yourself “I should have seen that one coming!”.

On top of the game being over-the-top from a story perspective, Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is a parody of gaming as a whole. References are made to Super Mario Bros. 3, Gears of War, and countless JRPGs. Combat plays out like many JRPGs, with Barkley having special “verboten jams” to damage enemies, instead of magic spells. There's an entire section of the game that plays out like an old graphic adventure game. You even get the equivalent of a warp whistle at one point.

This parody of game styles meant when part of the game did something different than the rest of the game, it didn't feel completely out of place. There were quick-time events (timed button pressed) like in Shenmue and God of War, but the felt more like mocking these games rather than embracing the mechanic. The same with the adventure game section.

Also, since the game is made by amateur developers using Game Maker, it has very low production values. The sprites are blocky and often taken from other sources. Music is often inspired thematically from other mediums as well, such as the opening theme referring to Space Jam, the Michael Jordon/Looney Tunes cross-over film.

This stopped me from over-analyzing each scene. Instead, I took the low-resolution graphics at face value, because the game didn't aspire to do anything more (also, it didn't cost $60). Nothing was too weird for the game and nothing looked out of place in it. I accepted everything.

In the end, all of these decisions and constraints made me end up liking and caring more about the story and characters than I do in most mainstream games. With many modern, commercial games, I end up nitpicking and finding flaws. I wasn't able to do that with Barkley Shut up and Jam: Gaiden. I didn't want to.

Instead, I only ended up ceaselessly entertained by the insane plot that kept turning in ways no one would expect. I was enthralled by half-cyborg, half-robot characters and how Michael Jordon was a traitor in the game world. I was giddy when I found the end boss, in what can only be described as one of the biggest non-sequitur's in gaming history.

More commercial games should try ideas and concepts this crazy. Games like this probably serve a niche market, which is why they don't get made, but they feel like what gaming is truly all about. Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is the game that The Joker would make if he were a game developer.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Speaking at IGDA Leadership Forum

It looks like the full program for the IGDA Leadership Forum has been put online. I will be speaking on "Leadership from the Trenches" one of the days out there. Not a talk on game design, but still a very important topic that I feel the entire industry can benefit from. From the official description:

As the size of development teams grow, the complexity of managing these teams increases significantly. As a result, it’s becoming increasingly important to have non-management members of development teams who exhibit characteristics of good leadership. This session will delve into ways for team members to become good, strong leaders from the trenches of game development and ways for organizations to promote an environment where these leaders thrive.

Learning Objectives:

  • To gain practical advice on ways to become a leader at the ground level
  • To understand why leadership is needed on all levels of a team
  • To understand how to foster a positive environment for leaders to grow and thrive
I hope some of you can make it out, it should be a great conference. The lineup of speakers including Clinton Keith (former CTO of High Moon Studios), Jason Coleman (Big Huge Games), and Trent Oster (BioWare), are pretty much out of my league so I'm sure to be the small fish at a conference of giants. It'll still be a lot of fun and informative. There is video available for free of the talks from last year's event as well if you want to check it out.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Save Us Microsoft!

During E3 last week, Microsoft announced that this fall an overhaul to the 360 Dashboard is going to be released. After Microsoft announced some games would be dropped from Xbox Live Arcade is they didn't sell well and did poorly critically, I wrote that it was a bad move and didn't solve the fundamental problem of the poor user interface that hampered Xbox Live. So, it's good to see a change is coming, even if it is years late.

They call them channels... they look like blades. They don't really show too much how to find games, which was the biggest part of the usability failure of the current interface. On the surface, and it's hard (and dangerous) to judge things without using them, it just looks like a nicer interface, but not necessarily a more usable interface.

I really hope this isn't the case. Features like avatars and Netflix are cool, but when it's hard to get to things and use them, it doesn't make me want to go use my console. It makes me want to play other games instead. So, here's hoping to a fundamental fixing of the issues of sorting through thousands of items in Xbox Live. I know they claim you will be able to, but I'm a pessimist.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Metal Gear

Being once a PC gaming zealot, I missed a number of console games during my youth. After the Sega Genesis, I didn't own another console until a few years after the original Xbox was launched. As a result, there have been a number of big franchises and games I've missed out on, and I've been slowly trying to catch up on them.

One such franchise is Konami's Metal Gear series. With Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots having been recently released for the PS3, I decided it was high time I checked out the Metal Gear series, starting at the beginning. The real beginning, though, with the original Metal Gear for the MSX (or at least the ported version of it, which is available on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence as an extra).

In playing the game, I was reminded how difficult and obtuse at times older games can be. What I found most interesting, however, was how the difficulty changed over time.

Design Lesson: By employing an inverse difficulty curve, Metal Gear is able to change the style of its gameplay as the player progresses.

Modern games do a fairly good job of introducing the player to new mechanics slowly. To help them along, designers often make sure the beginning of the game is the easiest, and difficulty increases incrementally from there.

Metal Gear's difficulty is flipped. While the player is introduced to new mechanics slowly, the beginning of the game is the hardest part. Solid Snake is given no weapons or items and charged with infiltrating an enemy base.

This means punching is the only method of attack available at the beginning of the game. Stealth is of the utmost importance during the early portions of the game, as a result. Sneaking around patrols to access new areas is how the majority of the beginning of the game plays. Being spotted alerts the guards, often leading to death or at least significant injury. Rations to restore health are rare at this stage in the game.

Soon, the player comes across a pistol, rations, and some key cards that open up new areas of the game. Part of Metal Gear revolves around saving prisoners. Save enough, and Solid Snake gains in rank, which ups his ammo capacities, maximum life, and number of rations that can be carried.

This is seemingly the primary game loop of Metal Gear. Sneak around, find objects that will gain you access to the next area, save people along the way, and rise in power over time.

By the time the player gets new weapons later in the game, like the grenade launcher and missile launcher, he is rather powerful. The enemies increase in number and strength, but not enough to counteract the strength of the player.

At this point, the gameplay changed for me. No longer was I supremely worried about sneaking. Sneaking was still a way of progressing, but I often found myself just running around the rooms trying to figure out where to go next. If enemies spotted me, I dispatched them easy.

Instead of dealing with enemies being the primary obstacle to game progression, the finding of the correct items to progress to the next area became the primary obstacle. Retracing my steps and trying to open every door became the style of play, and caution was slowly thrown into the wind.

As this continued, I would get even more powerful, to the point where I always had plenty of rations and firepower to defend myself against any aggression. The game world opened up dramatically, and I had many more options. This made finding the correct place to go difficult, but getting there wasn't. Whereas before, being caught by the enemy had significant ramifications, these ramifications were lost as I progressed through the game.

By the end of the game, I was a walking tank. I killed the last handful of bosses without breaking a sweat. I escaped easily. I conquered Metal Gear.

Normally games get harder as you go, but the core mechanic of the game stays the same. When the core mechanic is no longer necessary, a new way of playing is introduced. Because the game became easy from a survival point of view as I progressed, the way I approached the game began to differ.

I'm not sure if this was Hideo Kojima's intent when designing the game; it could just be bad game balancing or even something that happened during the porting of the MSX version of the game to the PS2. My preconceived notions of how the game would play were shattered, however. That's what ultimately made me enjoy the game so much; it did what I didn't expect it to do.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

First Wolfenstein Trailer Released

Activision Blizzard had their non-E3 press conference tonight, and for the first time video of Wolfenstein was shown. You can watch the trailer in HD at GameTrailers (Yes, there's a lot of explosions!) and check out the first batch of screenshots at Shacknews. Anyways, like I said before, it's exciting to have some information out on this game. Also, go pick up Game Informer magazine, which has a 10 page spread on the game.

Gamespot has an article online about the new games from Raven that were revealed. I don't see the Singularity trailer online yet, but it'll probably make its way onto the web soon.

Exciting times around the office!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wolfenstein Revealed

Game Informer has officially unveiled their August cover, with a world exclusive first-look at Wolfenstein. We've been working on this game for quite some time at Raven and it's really exciting to finally have information on the game out in the public.

Now you know why my blog posts have slowed down. So, go and pick up a copy of the magazine and check it out! I'm not actually sure what exact date Game Informer hits stores, but I know subscribers have started to get their copies in the mail.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Ratchet & Clank

ratchetandclank.jpgOnce one of the predominant genre of games, the quantity of platform games has dropped off significantly as technology has matured and moved the industry to predominantly 3D titles. As that has occurred, the propensity to create hybrid platform games has increased.

Games like Tomb Raider, Metroid Prime, and the subject of today's column, Ratchet & Clank, combine the classic platform elements with different combat and puzzle styles, to create unique game experiences.

While I enjoyed Ratchet & Clank quite a bit, the latter portion of the game began to taper off for me. The game offers the player sixteen different weapons for combat, the majority of which must be bought at vendors throughout the game.

As to be expected, the different weapons are made available slowly and have varying costs, which forces the player to make decisions. Here's where the problem, in my mind, lies with Ratchet & Clank.

Design Lesson: Ratchet & Clank fails to give the player sufficient reason and information to experiment with new weapons, which slowly causes the game to level off. This illustrates the difficulty in straddling the fine line between giving the player enough and not enough information.

In the first half of the game, weapons are fairly cheap and usually when a new one is introduced the player can afford it. As a player, I bought new weapons immediately and was usually satisfied with the new toy to play with.

As the game progresses, more weapon choices are posed, while the price dramatically increases. This, in and of its own, isn't a bad thing. It encourages the player to save up bolts (the in-game currency) and buy a subset of the weapons. You probably won't get every weapon in the game, so each weapon choice becomes more important.

The issue, for me, began with some poor weapon purchases I made around the halfway point. I bought a couple of weapons that just weren't very useful. The cost of buying them was significant (at the time). Without fail, after each bad buy, a cooler weapon would be offered that I could have bought had I saved my bolts. The negative consequences for my bad decision were moderate.

Consequence in games is not a bad thing. Telling the player exactly what consequences will occur depending on their actions is not necessarily good game design. However, in the case of Ratchet & Clank, it felt like the developers wanted to encourage experimentation in the game world through the weapons. By providing so many weapons, Insomniac provides the player with many opportunities to learn about enemy weaknesses and weapon roles.

However, the moment I made my first mistake with a weapon buy I became more hesitant to make another mistake. Instead of just blindly buying the next weapon, I started to read the descriptions that scrolled by. Using this new information, I bought another weapon. Again, I made a poor choice.

The number of weapon options increased as well. Instead of having one weapon available for purchase, I had four. This made me even more hesitant to buy new weapons; I was hamstrung by the options. Partly because I didn't want to get burned, and partly because I figured something even better was just on the horizon that I should save for.

So that's exactly what I did. Just as I am about to buy a new, awesome sounding weapon, the game threw me a curveball. It upgraded my health by one for free. It then also offered me a super health upgrade for a significant number of bolts. More than I had, in fact.

I chose to save some more and buy the health, as I realized I was dying more often in the latter levels. As a result, the weapon I was saving for was now out of my reach, and I was rapidly approaching the end of the game.

Weapons are the key to Ratchet & Clank, and by somewhat forcing my hand to buy health over a weapon, I lost out on another interaction with the world that I could have experimented with.

My interactions did not increase from having more health. My frustration levels just lowered, slightly. However, the lack of new weapons in the second half of the game reduced my enjoyment. Instead of having fun learning about new enemies and how different weapons are effective against them, I was using the same old weapons that worked the same way as before.

Insomniac may have already fixed this flaw in future games in the series, but the original Ratchet & Clank shows the fine line between giving the player enough and not enough information. Not having enough information led to poor decisions on my part, which then led to hesitancy in buying new weapons, which ultimately led to me enjoyed the latter part of the game far less than the beginning.

In order to fix these problems, I would do one or more of the following. First, show the weapons in-game some how. Many games have enemies that use weapons that you later get. Second, allow the player to actually use the weapon, in a test arena, to fully understand how it works would help the player feel like he had sufficient information to make a solid decision. Third, I would have spaced out the weapons a little more and possibly even reduced the set of total weapons. Finally, the health upgrade should have been available by completing a difficult, optional mission, rather than requiring a substantial amount of bolts.

What's fascinating about Ratchet & Clank is how it's still a very good game after all these years and these problems. I certainly enjoyed my first six hours in the game more than the last six, but the game didn't go downhill; It just leveled off. The lack of new weapons changed the feeling and pacing of the game, but only because I was scared to make the wrong decision.

If the game gave sufficient reason and information before purchasing new weapons, I would have tried out some of the more expensive, crazy weapons that were available later in the game. Weapons are what Ratchet & Clank is all about, so the reduction of new weapons as the game progresses causes the new, experimental feeling of the game to subside and causes the experience to slowly level off.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Persistent Usability Fail

I borrowed Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence from a friend at work recently, because I wanted to play the original two Metal Gear games before starting the Metal Gear Solid series (I'm a completionist that way). I gave away my PS2 when I bought my PS3, since the original is fully backwards compatible with the PS2, and was worried about the MSX ports of the original games not working on the PS3.

Luckily, the disc loads and the opening trailer plays. Great! I skip past it, and the interactive start screen displays and says "Press Start". After pressing start, the main menu loads and give me five options. I choose "Metal Gear" and press the X button. The menu fades out and then the interactive start screen fades in. I am back where I started.

I then go through all of the other four options available and try to start them the same way. Each time, the game loads back to the interactive start screen. My fears have been realized. The old games do not work on the PS3. I'm a sad panda.

I told my friend at work who loaned me the game about this today, and what he said to me almost blew my mind. "You probably have to hit O not X." What? Hit O? O is back out in games, not continue. First thing when I come home, I try pressing O instead of X on each option and low-and-behold it works. The original games run! However, let's recap something critical about the main menu.

You can back out of the main menu into the interactive start screen, which leads to the main menu. Is there any use for this interaction? Nothing on screen says what to press to progress, so I assumed X. Because I was playing on a PS3, I assumed there was a problem with the way the old games were being emulated.

I realize that in Japan, O is commonly go forward and X is go back, but I don't play many Japanese games and had forgotten this random piece of trivia until just now.

This is just a very simple example of usability failure in the gaming industry. I cannot fathom how many Western games go over to Japan and have X as continue and O as back. Somehow, I am doubting that gets changed in the localization process. If I have time, I'm going to start pointing out some of the more significant usability problems we have in games (I could write an entire essay on Mass Effect and its inventory management). For right now, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence: Usability FAIL.