Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Golden Ticket

Today I would like to talk about something relatively specific. I would like to talk around the idea that we don’t actually know what waits for us after we die, and how some media has attempted to make a story about what might happen. Grim Fandango just happens to be one of these, with the idea that after we die, our soul travels through the land of the dead for an average of about four years before reaching the land of eternal rest. Your personal worth also plays a factor of how much help you get in your travels on the other side, whether it is being a saint or a hard worker. The idea that you have a last chance to redeem yourself after you die is also a factor, as you always have a choice to “work off your time” as they put it in the game. Finally there are ways of accepting punishment for your sins in life, such as being trapped in a foam packed coffin for four years with nothing to preoccupy yourself but a mug. The ideas in this games world do sound very different from what many religions of our world believe, but they do hold the same morals that nearly all of them do too. Being a selfless person, or someone who does tasks for others is considered a productive member of society and therefore gets rewarded in the afterlife. Being selfish or greedy instead has you punished or offers one last chance at redemption. The reasons I am saying this is that what we know can be changed to make interesting stories, and help us better understand why these morals exist. Grim fandango is about a journey, one which we make after death. We don’t know if this journey exists, or if there even is an afterlife. But the quote at the end of the game truly does say it all. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen at the end of the line, so we might as well enjoy the trip.”

This is dedicated to my Aunt, who passed away last week. I hope her golden ticket is waiting for her on the other side.

Monday, 10 March 2014

A World of Possibility

Characterization is a very important step in game design, even for the simplest of characters. Simple characters like the Wigglers from Mario have a lot of thought and effort put into how they look, move and act, even though in their first appearance they only appeared in a couple of levels. But we always should take a step back and look at the world our games are based in.

A worlds characterization is just as important as its inhabitants, and making a world is not as hard as it sounds. A good world can make a game, even without a lot of characters in it. Well designed worlds can encourage exploration, as well as being good at conveying story elements. Some world are just fun to explore because they are filled with interesting things like animals, contraptions, history, and playthings.

A good example of world creation is the classic series Myst. Myst is a game series that not only has one world, but several per game, many of which have different elements about them which make them unique and interesting. A good example is the second game in the series, Riven. Riven is primarily based in one large central world which the player only gets to leave twice throughout the game, and only to get a small glimpse of the other two ages. That being said the age of Riven is spectacularly fleshed out with unique physics, language, social structure, and natural phenomena. One of my personal favorites is how minute lifeforms in the waters of Riven push themselves away from heat. This is used in the world to make underwater tunnels only with heating element and tram rails. Another example from the Myst series is from their MMO (massively multiplayer online game), Myst URU where you get to visit a world where the Dunni people make food for the florescent Algi in the Dunni cavern, a large cave city where there is no sunlight. Better yet, this wasn't even compulsory for the main story of URU, it was just a extra puzzle to expand the world and explain how the Dunni had a day night cycle.

Another game which has a massively intricate world is the fantastic puzzle platformer FEZ. Fez is a game which has a lot of bad press for all the wrong reasons, but i will have to come back to why in a later post. Fez itself has a strange concept about what happens when a 2D character gets to see the world in 3D (to an extent). This concept isn't that unique by this point, with even Nentendo having a crack at it with its Paper Mario series. However its the world that truly makes this game stand out. Each screen of this game has interesting mechanics, structures, animals and puzzles. Even the environments play into just how exciting it is to travel through this game and enjoy its world. Fez even has its own language and number system that plays into a number of the puzzles throughout the game, and a lot of effort has been put into the game to give some sense of story even when you can't read the text.

Some other games I love the world of are the Monkey Island series, Within a Deep Forest, Grim Fandango, The longest Journey, Shadowrun, the Oddworld series, The Fallout series, The Deponia Trilogy, The King of Dragon Pass, the Souls series. I could go on but you might start to see a pattern of sorts. All the games I have listed ether are role-play games, or have puzzle elements. This isn't true for all games, but its generally the case for a few different reasons. Role-play games are easy to explain, as they are basically an opportunity to interact in situations that we don't usually get into in real life. A interesting world can add options for us to interact in different ways, but it also asks us to imagine life in that situation. Games like this ask us what might change our choices in game based on what we know about the world. King of Dragon Pass specifically asks us to reset our morals and thoughts about our world, and accept the status quo of the game world while we are playing it. We are no longer us, we are now our character, and a good role-play game should emphasis that.

Puzzle games have a bit longer an explanation, but they come down to the same basic concept. We are not us when playing games in other worlds. In our world pirates are known savage and bloodthirsty lawbreakers, but in a game like monkey island, pirating is just another profession in life with rules and regulations. Pirates are seen as friendlier towards our goody two shoes protagonist, by just putting up with him instead of outright killing him as we would expect from real pirates. Puzzle creation also gets easier the more abstract the world is, mainly just because there is more the designer can play with in a situation to create a puzzle. Something we don't expect can happen when playing in the world, which can give us a clue about what we need to do to progress. Next puzzles that have an odd solution feel better to accomplish, just because we had to learn about the situation before solving the puzzle. A puzzle Deponia has you get rid of a guard dog with a stick, but not quite in the way you expect. Instead of throwing the stick you have to electrocute yourself with it instead. It may not make the most sense but in a game world anything goes as long as its possible create the connections needed to solve the puzzle. Finally Designers spend a lot of time thinking about puzzles when making a puzzle game, and also about how to give the player clues about what they have to do. This also means that the designer puts the player in awkward situations, and hence the player will start to think what could be happening in the world to cause the situation.

One last point about some platformers, as some of them have really intricate worlds. The main thing about platformers is that the ones with interesting worlds usually have some sort of puzzle elements, and the puzzle are sometimes just as easy as find the appropriate key for the appropriate door. An example of this is the Metroid series, where most of the puzzles are just like this. Don't get me wrong I really like this design method too, its just that some other types of games could have more expansive worlds without needing an puzzle element to explain why the world is so in depth, or a story reason to explore.

I have explained why certain genres usually have more expansive worlds than others, but I said at the beginning that world creation is easy, so here is why I believe that.

A lot of games use a basic world that are already established mainly just because people already expect certain things, so the game doesn't have to explain the basics to them. Its basically like a giant shortcut to the player understanding, but at the same time (going back to my post about unique experience) we want to new things to play with as players, so using this shortcut means we need more from the mechanics, story and gameplay to get the same feeling of enjoyment.

Unique world in games are usually created just by starting with a simple twist on something we already understand. For example the main twist of Myst is that books, when written in a certain way, are actually  portals to the worlds written within. The main twist of Shadowrun is what would it be like if a western fantasy world was brought a couple of thousand years into the future. The main twist of grim fandango is if there is a purgatory, what would it be like to live in if there are as few regulations as there are in the real world.

So what we start with is a twist, something that would be different than what we are used to. It can be as simple as what if light and darkness are reversed so the sun emits darkness to a floodlit planet, or what if planets and space are reversed so we live in a hallow in the midst of masses of rock and mineral. From that first twist if you start to ask more questions of yourself then you have a good start. So for example if we live in a hollow where do we get light from? Maybe there is a large sunorb suspended just above everyone's head which magnetically pushes itself  from the rock. Then how do we have a night day cycle? Maybe the sun decays and the inhabitants of our planet feed it with mined resources. Is there stars? Technically no, but you can see a million house lights at night time that fill the sky. Do we have space travel? Yes but its more digging tunnels than flying. Who feeds the sunorb? There could be a company that is charging everyone for the light they bring to the world and has a monopoly on the business. How do we dig through so much rock? Maybe we have a type of psychic that can fuse areas of the earth with different types of essence which magnetically pushes tunnels in the rock. It doesn't matter how strange the world you come up with is, its yours and as long as you can explain what is happening in the world it will be interesting to a decently sized group people out there. As long as you can snowball your ideas then you should never run out of stuff to add to the world. This works when creating groups and religions too, they can also intertwine to create a world that feels alive with activity.

In summery, making a unique world for your game can capture players imagination, and building it can start with a single question. So why not leave fantasy behind for a bit, or give the zombie apocalypse to someone else for a while. Its your chance to make a world designed to fit with your game instead of cramming it into an old cookie cutter. Try starting those high concepts with "Imagine a world" once again, or not. Just don't forget its a tool in your development arsenal and you should dust it off and use it once and a while.

If your interested in giving world creation a go with a few friends you should try this. Its a set of rules for group creation of role play worlds, but its good for making a developed history of a game world too.

This weeks readers challenge is to find a good twist for a world, a question that snowballs your ideas in making a place all of your own. Give it a try and post it below in the comments, I would love to see them.

Alas, this is the end for this week, but check back next Monday for "A Horrific Theory". See you next week.

An Early Celebration

Last week I announced, that my first game Only One was for sale on the Ouya. However I was a bit premature on my celebration, as it had a major bug in the code. It took me all week to fix the bug with the help of the awesome guys from the Ouya team.

Today I finally got Only One into the hands of the public today, which I am really exited about.

This week I will be back on schedule with updates starting tonight with last Mondays post. Thanks to everyone out there for coming and viewing my content so far. I hope everyone is enjoying the posts so far and in the future.

Let's get back to the interesting stuff shall we.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Only One now for sale on the OUYA

And here we begin

My first game is out there, on the vast interwebs for them OUYA owners to enjoy.

If you happen to own an OUYA you can check it out here.

It feels great to have my first project done, even if it is small.

Time to move onto the next project, something a little more active and social i think.

See you on Monday.

Readers Challenge - The Immersion is BLINDING!

Two weeks ago I set a challenge to make a game which you could not use visuals, and used sensors on the players hands to play. I was set a similar task during a university module, but my challenge was just to make a game with no visuals. I have added to the idea I had since the module to make the experience more interesting.

Lets start with the visual aspect of this brief, and the fact there isn't any. My first thought when i got this brief, was that the obvious choice was to do something with the main character being bind. But I added something to the brief for your guys that you could use in your ideas. I said that your controls attached to your hands could be lights instead of contacts, and hence you could do something with them changing color to signify something. That being said, I'll leave that for now as I didn't have that in my brief. Another thing that I had in my brief was I had to use a 3D sound-scape, so a player playing could hear what was going on around them. For this I thought that a good horror based game would be appropriate for the brief, as ambiance is usually something commonly associated with horror. I had also experienced a sound based game, where players listened to a recording with their eyes closed. This recording had the sounds of a rather disturbing haircut, while other things happened ether in the background or to the listener. One of the events in the recording had the barber put a plastic bag over your head, which makes you feel short of breath. Next I needed a setting, so i started thinking about that. When I made the game I was taking notes on Mass Effect 2 and Dead Space, so i jumped to space being the preferred setting. This wasn't a bad jump as a space theme actually gives me a bunch of machinery and electronics to make sounds out of. Buzzing wires, flickering clicks from malfunctioning lights, metal crashes, and glass thuds from asteroids all where available for me to shape into an environment. Now I had a setting and a base genera, all I had to do now was come up with some mechanics. I began thinking about how hard it is for us to discern where objects are just by sound, we mostly use sight and touch for spacial awareness, so making navigation as simple as possible was important to me. I also though that because sound was important that there should be a way of the player making sound to figure out where they are. With these things in mind i decided that the game would be about walking down a corridor, and tapping on the walls or sidling up to walls to get past obstacles. These controls when i made the game where as simple as up and down on the keyboard to move forward and back, tapping left and right  knocked on the walls of the corridor, and finally holding left or right put made the character put their back to that wall. So where is the horror, you might be asking. Well there needs to be some sort of threat so the simple thing to do was to add a monster that is a recurring obstacle. Finally I just added some other obstacles that get in the players way, like swinging electrical wires, doors which need keypads to be pressed, and lockers to hide from the monster. That was it, everything I made for the module, but I always wanted to add more to the experience. I decided that the game could have the player on a treadmill which was rigged to move forward or backward in relation to the player, and also that the player had to actually reach up and touch the walls with gloves that had contacts in to tap or outright sidle up to the wall to do the commands. Next you could also have the player duck by touching the ground, all the time having the movement of the players head change what they heard. Now you have my full explanation, but lets make this into a high concept shall we.

You play as a worker on the space station tilde. Alien life as invaded the station causing mayhem on board, and after an encounter with one of the alien lifeforms which unfortunately blinded you, you found a place to hide. Hours pass and you exit your hiding spot to find help, but the station is quiet, and destroyed. You need to go through the corridors of the station to get to safety, while avoiding the aliens. You have to do this only using your sense of hearing, and your intuitive use of the environment around you. Can you get off the station, or will you end up being just another meal.

So what did you guys come up with, I would love to see the designs in the comments below.

Don't forget to check back on Monday for the next post about game worlds.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Toxicity of Multiplayer

Multiplayer games make up a sizable chunk of our industry, with the biggest games coming out each year being based majorly on the mechanic. unfortunately however a bunch of the multiplayer games out there aren't designed with player community in mind, and hence cause a toxic atmosphere in their communities. This can be seen in a number of games, but probably the most notable are "MOBAs" (multiplayer online battle arenas).

What causes toxic atmospheres? Well there is a number of things but in MOBAs like league of legends, the most prominent is the fact that the teams can be dragged down by one player playing badly. Normally this isn't a problem in a game where a good player can counterbalance a bad player, but its not really possible in these games as the games mechanics are all based on snowballing effects.

Let me explain, MOBAs are based on the idea that you play as a character that has to build up their abilities and equipment as fast as possible, and then use your upgraded character to destroy the enemy teams structures. The games act like gigantic tug of wars with all players trying to push their way to victory against the enemy team. These mechanics would be fine if the game acted like a real tug of war, using momentum as the teams greatest asset instead of snowballing. The issue is that single players can "feed" the other team, dieing a bunch to opponents attacks and giving the opposing players extra gold. This doesn't only mean that the bad player is under equipped, as they lose time to farm gold and experience, it also means that the opponents have been given a advantage against the entire team, so even a mediocre player can beat a good player if they have been fed my a bad player. This causes teams to blame their worst player, as it end up with them causing their team to fail. This blame game causes a toxic atmosphere for the general community, however teams of friends usually are more willing to accept the shortcomings of their friends, and help them learn to get better.

How would I solve this problem? I would remove bonuses for killing players, I know it sounds daft, but if there was no bonus for killing players apart from setting back the player you killed, then you would would then have to kill every opponent on the opposing team before you got the outright advantage over all the opposing players. You would have to be the best player to be able to one up the entire enemy team, or you would have to work with your other team mates to get the best of each of the opponents team. It may not seem like the most existing solution, but with it good players cant be dragged down by bad ones through feeding, and hence remove part of the blame game. This still means that bad teams will still lose, but it removes the fact that the team is only as good as its worst player and averages it out the skill of the team amongst all the players, as long as they work as a team.

Lets jump to a different genre now, the first person shooter. I have expressed my distaste for call of duty's game design before, but here is probably the biggest sin. Because players can shoot and kill each other in a few bullets, a single player can rush into a room and kill four or five enemies before they even know what I going on. The game is mostly about instant awareness instead of strategy or team work, a type of information that is very hard to communicate to people you don't know over a microphone, so most players don't bother and play the game solo instead. A game where you play in a team but its better to play solo has a different problem compared to MOBAs. Players start see their team mates like they would NPCs, expecting them to fulfill a role, and then get annoyed when they don't fulfill that role adequately. Not seeing team mates as people, makes players more willing to insult other players, as they don't think about social consequence, (This is a general problem with online play, but its especially bad in FPSs). The other problem with the game is the fact that it is very much luck based. Being in the right place at the right time is what makes you able to easily kill other players, which in general pisses them off as it wasn't skill that killed them, just luck. This is also the reason why the aspect of camping is usually frowned upon. Camping is the act of staying in a good position for players to come into your cross-hairs. Basically finding the right place and then waiting for the right time. Its a generally good strategy, but one that annoys people as they don't believe it to be skillful, and just unfair instead. Lastly players are only awarded for getting kills in a row and hence getting more toys to play with, and not for completing the objective. Players feel accomplishment from not being a team player as the kill death ratio is more important than leading your team to victory. All these factors mean that in general its more fun to be on your own rather than in a team, as well as the fact that players feel cheated when they die, giving players resentment for the other players on both teams. The community hence descends into a lot of insults and bickering, and does not form bonds with players at all.

How would I solve this? well this problem has many facets so ill explain some fixes to some of them. I would add Items and weapons that are more useful to your entire team than just you, like cameras and trip wires that when triggered provide the information to your whole team. Targeting lasers which other players can use when calling down airstrikes and such (I know some of these things already exist but they weren't very well implemented and were generally useless). Just have a slot in the load-outs specifically for team based items. Have kill-streaks be based around completing the objective instead of just killing the opposing team, and have each of the kill-streaks require another player to use, so you need your team mates in order to do the cool stuff. For example, and air strike requires you to fly the plane over the right place while your team mate drops the bomb at the right time. How about giving players more health so they get a chance to take cover from gunfire and have the regenerating health act slower, this would mean players will still get an advantage from getting the jump on the opponent, but there is still a gunfight. What if one shot kill weapons are notoriously hard to use but for those who mastered them it felt like a skill. finally glorify the player who did the most for the team and not the one who got the last kill of the game.

I have ragged about what makes a community toxic, but what makes a good community? Staying on FPSs there is Team Fortress 2. TF2 has a bunch of the ideas stated above implemented in their most basic form, and although it could do more, it does enough to make the community enjoyable to interact with. In TF2 there is entire classes based on helping and working with team mates. These classes are the engineer and medic, and although they can be used as normal to kill other players on the other team, they are much better when used in conjunction with other players playing other classes. Engineers can make structures that teleport other players to better locations and heal other players, while medics can heal, buff and make other players invincible for a short amount of time. Other classes also have team effects as well, the soldier for example has ways of buffing other team mates in the area with large bonuses when they gather enough fury. Next all players have a decent amount of health, meaning they can always get into a gunfight with people shooting at them, so players don't feel cheated. One shot kills are only available for two classes, the sniper and the spy and causing the one shot kills are really hard to pull off, and so happen rarely and truly feel skillful when they are pulled off. Finally there is no glorification of people with a good kill death ratio, and instead focuses on objectives to be taken, and when an objective is taken, the entire team is given a reward for accomplishing an objective by getting a critical boost for a short time. Finally the general game attitude is about enjoying the game win or lose, as there is no ongoing scoreboards except your personal accomplishments. You get the same rewards for playing whether win or lose, its the amount of time you play and not how well you did which is what your rewarded for.

 Dark souls has a very accomplished PVP community even though it is very much a single player game. Their community has golden rules and each player is usually honorable enough to allow their opponent to get ready before a fight. Here is an idea, how about a high score board based on the players who have lost their battles, voting for their opponent? Well its a thing in dark souls, indictments are a way of scoring yourself and getting more appropriate opponents, but you have to be indited by an opponent you have killed. Its a weird system but it works for the high scoreboard. Some players even give indictments, humanity (what it costs to be human), and souls (what you lose when you die) to their opponents before attacking. There is also the golden rules, which are only in place because the game is unbalanced and players get more enjoyment out of fair fights than unfair ones. The golden rules include, no healing in a battle, if you enter a world of a player already in a battle wait untill its over before you attack, allow your opponent time to buff their weapons and use items and heal to full health before you start. These are pretty much enforced by most players, as its just more fun to be fair. Also things like healing during a battle is already a bad idea as the animation is long and your opponent can punish you with a back-stab, and then do the exact same action while you get to your feet. Finally you are rewarded for being nice to others through handy hints and helping others through boss fights already, so these ideals of being friendly carry over to the PVP as well. 

To summarize, for a good community you game should have these aspects. If you have team based game play, have players be required to work together for the best results. Make sure the worst player isn't the most important part of your team, and your teams skill is based around the average skill of the team. Have bonuses for players who do work together, and also bonuses for players who are friendly or helpful (make sure the bonuses actually matter to the players). Finally make sure players are put up against those of an appropriate skill level so that players feel like they have had a good battle and respect their opponent.

The readers challenge this week is about game community's, choose a multiplayer game you enjoy playing and try interacting with some other players, or you could just watch or listen to the conversation going on. Figure out whether you think the community is friendly or not, and then think about what the game has done to create that kind of game community.

I will be posting the missing post from last Friday, next Friday, sorry for the delay. Next week I will be having a look into something a bit less depressing, so join me for next weeks post "A World of Possibility".

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Immersion is BLINDING!

Immersion is considered a major factor when designing games, but as we get better technology that allows us to get more and more immersed in the games we are playing, we have to ask is there a ceiling to how immersed we should be before the experience is no longer enjoyable. This is mainly targeted at horror or action games, as most of these situations we would not want to be in if they where real. Just how immersed can we be with the current technology available? The gadget show made a simulator for battlefield 3 using a bunch of different technologies. Although this was an entertaining show, using some of these gadgets and joining them others currently available may make the simulating a bit too realistic for some.

If you haven't watched it yet, you can see the gadget shows experiment here. I'll be using this as a starting point.

In the episode there is a multi-directional treadmill, there is several kinds currently available with the Virtuix Omni probably being the most affordable for home use. For now though we will use the example from the program as it seems more sensitive and natural for movement. In the program they use a large tent with 360 degree projection to simulate being able to see in all directions. More recently however the Oculus Rift has been made publicly available and (although I have never had a chance to try it) has had a lot of people saying that its just like being in the game. Next we have the control, which in the program is being done by a smart phone taking over the mouse control. The Oculus Rift however takes over mouse control, so if we wanted the gun and the camera to function separately, we would have to have a game which they are not connected. Theoretically this is very much possible but games made like this would have to be specifically made for this setup. Right so now we have movement, vision, and control covered, let me start to make things a bit unsettling. In the program there is the use of paintball guns to represent being hit, but there is a more high tech way of getting people to feel like they are being hit. There is a form of brainwave manipulation that can trick the brain into thinking its feeling pressure, pain, or pleasure from different parts of the body. This same manipulation can forcefully cause you to feel unease or panic as well and it all has to do with electromagnetism. Unfortunately I cant find a clip of the documentory I saw this on but it has the same idea behind it as the Koren Helmet (aka God Helmet), a experiment that was carried out in the late 80s - early 90s. It's currently considered a medical science, but has seen some use outside of medicine for relaxation purposes. Adding the sense of pain and panic to the sights and sounds, as well as having everything in game reacting as though the player was in the protagonists situation, then we might start having some players having un-enjoyable experiences, as they feel its all just a bit too real.

Don't believe that there could be a roof for some of us, well think of this. You are playing assasins creed from a first person perspective, as you make a jump off a ledge you don't quite make the next building and go plummeting to the street below. You take some falling damage so you feel a sharp pain in your right ancle as if you had twisted it. Next a group of guards spot you and you get into a fight with three of them. You clash swords with one of them before slicing a cut in his gut, letting his guts start to fall out as he falls to the ground. Suddenly one of them plunges a knife into your back giving you a large sharp pain in your back and a smaller pain in your chest. Your low on life so you start to panic, more guards show up from an alleyway. I'll stop here but I would suggest reading that through again and thinking hard about what it would feel like if you where really feeling those pains and emotions, not though any choice of your own but through the equipment that was immersing you in the game. If you think its fine, good for you, but just so you know some of us start to feel uneasy when things are a bit too realistic. One last thing to think about is if you have ever played a game where you kill? well think about that game and then think about the same situation in real life and think about whether you could watch the same scene knowing it was real.

Don't get me wrong, I think immersion is a great thing. Graphics, sound and control all make us feel that little bit closer to being part of the game. But separation is good too, knowing it is all just a game, being able to look around at the room you are in and thanking "I'm glad I'm not in their shoes". Besides, I'm sure some people might realize that having to run a mile every round of Team Fortress 2 gets exhausting quickly.

I have a lot more to say about horror games (even though I don't personally enjoy playing them), and how good ones use their environments and mechanics to give good, yet horrifying experiences. Unfortunately that will be for another time.

Now, on with the readers challenge. This time we are going to get creative, so I have a brief for some of you to try and come up with an idea for. Design a game with no visuals, and the player uses gloves with contacts on the palms, to touch objects around them to play. The contacts could be swapped with lights and light sensors if you wish. Lets see some creativity, and again I will post my design next Friday-Saturday, along with my train of thought, so I'll see you then.

Next week, join me for my next post "The Toxicity of Multiplayer".