Friday, October 31, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Fallout/Fallout 2

Every single day of my life I make choices. I choose what clothes to wear. I choose what food to eat. I choose who to be friends with. These choices I make affect my life and the lives of those around me. My choice to eat yogurt this morning probably doesn't have huge consequences, beyond how hungry I am later. However, my choice many years ago to work towards being a game developer has has major consequences on not only my life, but the lives of others around me.

These consequences and the choice that fuel them are the heart of the Fallout games and the focus of this week's design lesson.

Design Lesson: Fallout and Fallout 2 use choice and consequence to deliver a world of enormous opportunities to the player and give the player agency over the type of character they develop.

Like in many RPGs, Fallout lets you choose if you want to be good or evil. Your actions will decide your alignment. If you save the people of a dying town or kill the slavers that look to put all humans into bondage, then your actions will be looked on favorably. If you kill children and women for sport and perform unsavory deeds for mob bosses, you will be looked at as an evil person.

No matter what your actions, your choices will have consequences however. In Fallout, saving a girl from a group of Raiders gives you the ability to have her join your party and adventure with you. As a result, you can get into tougher fights, since you have the help of another person.

In Fallout 2, I was granted a temporary day-pass to go inside the gates of Vault City, a very closed-off city that could have information that would help me with my main quest. While inside Vault City, I spoke to a high-ranking official in a rather rude manner. As a result, I was immediately kicked out of the city and my pass was permanently revoked.

Unless I fought my way into the city and killed everyone within, I was now unable to get inside the walls of Vault City. All of the quests that I had accepted in the city, were now impossible to complete. The important information inside the city was unreachable. The people in the city would not speak to me, sell me goods, help me out. They reviled me.

In many games, this would be the end. The poor choice I made in talking to an official in a snide manner would result in the consequence of game over, since the critical information was hiding within.

However, in Fallout, while the consequence of making my life more difficult was apparent, the game wasn't over. There were other sources that had the same information elsewhere. I just had to explore some other cities to find them. I had to find an alternate path. A path that the designers made available, knowing that someone would talk themselves into a pickle inside Vault City.

The game never told me if I talked back to the man in Vault City that I would get the boot. It just did it. I made that choice. I remember clicking the dialog option and thinking to myself “Man, this guy is a little annoying. I'm going to be a smart-ass”. Nowadays, many games would broadcast you the consequence of your choice before the choice is made. Give the player all the information up-front, and they can make the right decision.

But life isn't about having all the information up-front. Often you make your choices and have no idea of the consequences until much later. Fallout emulates this with it's game mechanics, and as a result it results in the world feeling richer and deeper. Your choices feel like your own and not what the designer wanted you to do. You are able to make your own mistakes and recover from them. Your choices are your own, and the unique set of choices you make as you play is what makes the game play differently for all different players.

Being evil opens up doors that aren't available if you are good, and vice-versa. The game uses the different choices you can make and offers alternatives in-case you ever make a “bad” choice. Those alternatives fill the game world with opportunity and gameplay. As a result, there is no right way to play Fallout. The same can't be said for many modern games, where there is one correct way and path to play (or two paths to choose from).

The choice and consequence also affected my character and how I role-played him. I ended up rolling my vilification by Vault City into my character's personality. Since there were rival cities, I sided with the other cities and not Vault City. I didn't want to help Vault City; they hated me.

This led me to feel like I was playing a true character, and not just a cookie-cutter blank slate that is prevalent in many games. The game gives enough background to keep the story interesting and relevant, but lets you impress enough of your own personality into the character to make him yours.

My personality came through in my actions and the choices I made. I controlled the actions of my character and how he responded to the situations of the world. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the end of both games, when the narrator talks about what happens in the future to different characters and areas. Some cities will prosper because you helped out. Others will die off, because you abandoned them. Still, others will fail even after your best efforts.

All of this makes the world of Fallout feel bigger and richer than it really is. It doesn't end up feeling strictly like a sequence of designer-created events. It feels like a world that responds to you, that lets you be the person you want to be, and gives you a chance no matter what. That's the beauty of Fallout and it took replaying both games to realize why I consider them to be my favorite games of all-time.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

Brothers in Arms is a series I've always enjoyed, thanks to its mix of first-person action and strategic gameplay. Being able to order squads of infantry to suppress and flank opponents in order to get the drop on them was always satisfying for me, and I enjoyed that change in formula from the rest of the run-and-gun shooters that were prevalent at the time.

What made the series so different for me was the requirement to stay hidden to survive. Most shooters you can run and strafe to kill enemies, but not Brothers in Arms. You had to crouch behind cover and choose your spots carefully to kill the enemy. A full-frontal assault was suicide.

Since the original game came out in 2005, much has changed in the world of shooters. Specifically, Gears of War popularized the cover-mechanic that many shooters are now using. As is natural with any good series, Gearbox has attempted to adapt the Brothers in Arms series to these new changes by adding a cover system.

However, instead of adding to the experience of the game, I found this cover mechanic to detract from the core gameplay that made the original game so much fun. It isn't because a cover system was implemented; rather, it's how the cover system was implemented in this first-person shooter.

Design Lesson: Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway implements its cover system using the third-person perspective, which changes how players approach the combat situations in the game and makes the game feel more disjointed.

The problem with going back and forth between a third-person and first-person camera is the transition between them. If you pop the camera to the new view instantly, the player may have a tough time grounding themselves into exactly where they are standing and which way they are facing. Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway gets around this by interpolating the camera between the two views.

This makes the transition a little better to stomach. However, while I knew exactly where I was at all times I found myself playing the game very differently than before. Being in third-person means there is no more aiming down the ironsights of the gun. Most shooters today have ironsights, and firing down them is more accurate but usually harder to see.

Instead, you get a zoom while behind cover, which gives you all the benefit of ironsights without any of the penalty. That may seem great, but it fundamentally changed the way I attacked many combat scenarios.

Normally, in the original Brothers in Arms I would use one team to suppress the enemy so they wouldn't move from their cover. Then, I would move to the flank with the other team and pop out and kill them rather easily. Usually I would go into ironsights quickly, to get a couple accurate shots off, then go back to hiding behind cover.

In Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, I could easily pick off guys from a far distance thanks to the third-person view of the enemy and the perfect crosshair. So, instead of constantly flanking enemies I found myself going to cover and using my rifle zoomed in from behind cover to pick enemies off.

If I was having trouble, I would use the squads to suppress the enemy, so I could advance alone. Rarely would I actually attack the flank with the squads or even on my own. Instead, I just aimed for the little bit of head that popped up and moved closer if necessary. This took away some of the strategy that I enjoyed so much in the original, and it's due to the fact that aiming and shooting in the third-person perspective was far too easy.

Another issue with the changing camera perspectives is the fact that the game wants you to be at cover at all times. If you are not at cover, you are most likely going to die fast. So, the majority of the game you are actually in third-person not first-person.

You can actually determine what view you are in by what your actions are. If you are moving, you are in first-person most likely. If you are in combat, you are in third-person. Since most of the game has you in combat (this is a shooter after all), you probably will see more of the third-person view than the first-person. By implicitly separating actions with views, the game feels disjointed at times.

It makes me wonder why even include the first-person perspective. It adds little to the game, if the game is best played from third-person. It doesn't make the game more immersive, since you are constantly being pulled out of the characters eyes when you go to cover. The ironsights don't add more to the game, because you won't use them that often.

To me, third-person is the wrong way to go for this series. It has always been about the visceral nature of war, and I feel that is best expressed through first-person in most games. The original games proved the formula works very well.

A cover system is important, but it's possible to implement that cover system in first-person. The core strategy for winning at the game would not have changed if this were the case. The aesthetic feel of the game on a moment-by-moment basis would have remained unified and also matched the previous games in the series.

In my mind, this would have been the better approach. The game felt too much like I was doing my own thing and the squads were just there along for the ride, than being an integral part of gameplay. This makes the game feel like other World War II shooters and not like a unique franchise.

Changing camera angles on a regular basis is not a good idea, in my opinion. Find the best perspective for your game and go with that the whole time if possible. Sure, it makes sense to go third-person for the vehicle level, but don't change camera perspectives on the player every 30 seconds. Hopefully, the next installment to the Brothers in Arms series can fix this flaw.