Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Article: Meandering Ramblings from the Tabletop

Having lost power for the past couple of days due to Hurricane Irene, I played a lot of the card game Dominion with family.

Dominion is generally considered a "German-style" game, meaning that all players are in until the end, the theme is economic (rather than military, like Stratego or Risk), there is little direct interaction between players, and it requires an intermediate level of strategy (more than Pictionary but less than Chess).

Dominion is one of my favorite tabletop games, and was my first introduction to the German style.  I can generally play it for hours and never get bored.  If I ever did, Dominion has expansions which add new mechanics to provide flavor to the core experience.

But while Dominion is a near perfect game, it strikes me every time I play that such tastes are subjective.  Some people love Dominion, others tire of it quickly.

One player gets up and does something else when it's other players' turns, another two players change their goal from winning to simply messing with other players to the point of annoyance, ruining the game for them.

In fact, I think I've only come across one person who loved to play Dominion the way I do, and that's the man who introduced me to it!

Finding friends (or even strangers) who enjoy any game as much as I do is a rare find.  Consider a tabletop RPG:  some players get into the game so much they're acting as their character and practically LARPing, while others find that a distraction and prefer to abstract the game into pure mechanics.  Still others dislike such games altogether, and too many people refuse to try such a game, either because it's too complex or too nerdy for them.

This applies just as much to videogames, in fact.  Playing games online with strangers often results in meeting a lot of jerks that ruin the experience with their behavior.  Other times, trying to find even a single friend to play a game in the same room with can be a hassle.  At least with online play, you're not restricted to your geographic area.

For me, the perfect people to play a game with are those that are in the same room as me, and are into a game with about the same level of enthusiasm as me.  In my own life, those friends are rare.  I envy those that have such friends.

And so it strikes me that I find comfort in single-player games, because it's just me and the machine.  It's unlikely that a single-player videogame will have enemies that cheat or are obnoxious.

I grew up that way, for the most part.  My Nintendo was usually played without a second controller plugged in, and whenever I tried online play on my PC, I could never get DOOM or Warcraft to connect right (old crackling modems that tie up the phone line were a primary source of frustration for me in those days).

It wasn't until I moved to a new neighborhood that I met someone that enjoyed videogames, and we typically played fighting games like Tekken and Mortal Kombat, or other competitive games like Twisted Metal, Smuggler's Run, etc.  About the only time we cooperated was when we played single-player games, where we'd trade off or consulted each other with games like Ace Combat 4 and Starflight.

But that friend lost interest in videogames, and it wasn't until college that I met a friend who broke open tabletop games for me, and got me into Dominion and Cosmic Encounter.  Now, after college and being back home, the lack of people who enjoy videogames gets to me.

So it's back to single-player games again.

I've stopped to consider an interesting idea about single-player games:  they are rare on the tabletop.  Sure, there have always been timewasters like Solitaire, but there are rarely (I have not seen any) single-player experiences like you would find in a videogame.  You can't play D&D by yourself, but you can certainly play Final Fantasy alone (indeed, most games in the franchise are entirely single-player).

There is hardly a precedent in sports, either, because even potentially single-player sports like Bowling and Golf are still social activities.  You could bowl to get a 300, but more often than not that's a secondary goal to beating the other players in your lane.  And when it's not -- even when there is no competition and you're just out to have a good time -- you still go with friends and buy a beer and socialize.

Before videogames, single-player games got boring quickly -- how many times can you play Solitaire in a row?  How many crossword puzzles can you do?

I'm amazed they are a daily newspaper feature.
I find it pretty fascinating that their are no large-scale single-player board games.  There is the occasional game you could technically play by yourself, that relies on the board being the enemy, like Shadows Over Camelot, but the game is untested as a single-player experience and it may be impossible to win alone.

Even though the online scene in videogames in growing, there will probably always be a market for single-player storytelling experiences.  So I wonder if there is a market for single-player story-driven board games.  Perhaps they would have to be designed for both multiplayer and single-player as a first stop.

Such a game would require a new paradigm in thinking.  A launching point could be cooperative games that are expanded to allow single-player experiences.

However, one of the major implicit selling points of board games in general is that they're social experiences.  You are always two feet away from the next player.  You might talk about other things as you play, or all enter the magic circle together and fantasize that the board is a world.

Without the social element, would single-player board games sell?  Well, if single-player videogames sell, and other single-viewer experiences, like books, sell, then there is no reason to think not, except that it is unprecedented and the very idea causes a kneejerk reaction that prevents such games from selling.

I wonder if a single-player tabletop game is even feasible, and if so, if it's sellable.  Could a person derive enough satisfaction from a story-driven single-player tabletop game that they'd want to buy an expansion?  Would they like their experience so much they'd want to tell their friends all about it?  Could such a game have enough variety that a player would want to play it again and again and make different choices, changing the story or the experience entirely?  Could such a game be created that allows both single- and multiplayer experiences?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Article: Redefining Genre

What separates games from other media is their interactivity.  So to some degree, it makes a fair amount of sense that our genres would be divided by various types of interaction.

Games which require quick-thinking and reflexes are typically labeled Action games; games that require you to control multiple units in battle simulations are called Strategy games; games that require you to micromanage individuals, either singularly or in groups of up to around five or so, and pay attention to intricate statistics, are often called RPGs; and so on.

Such genre divisions help because certain types of mechanics appeal to certain target audiences, and the consumer wants to know what kinds of mechanics to expect ahead of time.

We also see genres mixing and matching these days, with Action-Adventures, and more recently FPS-RPGs, despite how far apart such demographics are traditionally thought to be.

We've also split our genres down with fine granularity.  I can't name too many games that fall under the genre Vehicular Combat, but we have it to differentiate them from Racing games, which look similar at a glance.  Action games were some of the first games to emerge, and perhaps have the most sub-genres and cross-genres there than anywhere.

Vehicular combat.  Like racing, but with more explosions.
But such distinctions only help to a point.  After awhile, we began adding games by subject matter, rather than mechanics, such as Sports -- simulations of the real life activities, which can have a wide variety of mechanics.

Next came games based on emotions, and we only have one: Survival-Horror.  The term "Survival" suggests certain mechanical aspects of the genre, but "Horror" clearly states what you are expected to feel.

Now I want to jump back for a moment and discuss movies, our closest relative.  Movies divide genres by two things:  the setting (Sci-Fi, Western) and the emotion (Comedy, Romance, Horror).  We also have Action and Adventure movies, but these both indicate you are intended to have a feeling of awe while watching a spectacle, so they can be grouped with the emotive genres.

When movies first came out, there wasn't much in the way of genre.  There were motion pictures.  Soon, the talkies appeared.  Then color came in.  Movies were separated by technology for a short time, before finally reclassifying into the genres we know.  Eventually, all movies had sound, and most movies were in color.

Now we're slightly bringing back the technological idea with 3D, since it is largely a gimmick (certainly in the 50's and 80's, but we won't know if it stays a gimmick in these 2010's).  However, this makes a fair amount of sense, as it serves as a warning to viewers who get sick from watching 3D movies.

In some ways, the same can be said for games.  My father gets sick playing FPSs, but is fine playing Top-Down Strategy games.  But with movies, however, the technology is not the main thrust of the experience.

Now if we take a look at fiction literature, we see a similar grouping to movies:  setting (Sci-Fi, Fantasy) and emotion (Humor, Horror, Romance), and occasionally plot (Detective, Courtroom Drama).

Now, the stage, believe it or not, is the closest to a games-style classification system.  The stage has plays, musicals, operas, and ballet.  These are conventions of the stage which appeal to certain people.  I get bored of ballet, but I love a good musical or opera.  These conventions of stage are analogous to mechanics in games.  Below those genres, stage productions can be divided further into dramas or comedies.  Games' only subgenre of that type, again, is Survival-Horror.

Pictured:  just like videogames.
It is important to note these classification models to see how we can improve ours.  Stage productions in the first place focus on a smaller segment of the population (compare the number of Americans who have seen a play in the last year versus a movie).  So following their model is not a key to popularity, surely.

With movies, people quickly got over the technology of it, and so even though Clerks is in black and white, we don't seem to care.  But never did the conventions of movie-making ever become a class of genres.  We don't watch Cloverfield because it's a shaky-cam movie.  No movie is advertised as having establishing shots, pans, zooms, jump-cuts, fade-outs, or any other camera or post-production trick that makes movie-making a separate art form from others.  The cinematography of a movie is analogous to game mechanics.  And cinematography is something that goes unseen when the audience is busy paying attention to the story.

Similarly, a novelist's style (his or her mechanics) fades away if done well, because a reader gets so sunk into the book that they don't even realize they're reading anymore.

When a novelist has a bad style, you get sucked out.  When a movie has bad cinematography, you get sucked out.  The best of these book and movie mechanics go unnoticed.

Similarly, we should be thinking about how to make game mechanics so intuitive that they fade away altogether and we forget we are playing games.  Players who are deep into a game genre do this simply by getting used to the mechanics enough to grok them, but new players find a barrier of entry.

I think games, in general, ought to find ways to accommodate all players so that the mechanics are no longer an issue.  This is not to say we shouldn't have hardcore games, of course, but hardcore games will fade away in the long run if we don't make them more accessible.

One way of doing this is to make games with hardcore genre mechanics for children, so they grow into the mechanics.  But I think there are better options.

Feeding mechanics into games a bit at a time is a better way.  I can imagine an FPS where you don't fire a gun in the first few levels, because you're busy learning so many other important FPS mechanics first, like basic navigation, which is complex to a non-gamer.

Once we get a sort of standard into game tutorials, any genre, even yet-uninvented genres, will come easily to everyone, ending the barrier of entry that prevents games from being as popular with everyone as movies.

Then, we can start to rethink genres, because thinking by mechanics will become unnecessary, and people will buy games because of the emotional content in it.  They will by a Horror game, whether it's an FPS or an Adventure game, without caring so much, just wanting a good fright.  Housewives will by Romance RPGs, and teens will buy Comedy Puzzle games.  We will then drop the notion of "RPG" and "Puzzle," and games will reach the status of movies in our culture.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Article: On Violence

Growing up, I played DOOM, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros., MYST, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The 7th Guest, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Warcraft, and a ton of other videogames without much in common.

I made no discriminations, no categorizations based on genre, because genre was a foreign concept to me.  I didn't care what the rating was (half of my childhood was spent without a videogame rating system anyway), and I certainly made no distinction between violent and non-violent games.

Pretty much identical to a nine year old.
I played DOOM and Mortal Kombat when I wanted to, and MYST when I wanted to.  DOOM has you mowing down zombies and demons with machine guns and rocket launchers, and MYST is about a hair more violent than a Sunday crossword puzzle.

The violence held no attraction or repulsion for me.  The middle-of-the-road games, like Sonic the Hedgehog games, where you stomp things, but with no blood, were just as much fair play.  There was no road to be in the middle of.  Only now as I write this am I placing these games along that line.

And as far as I can tell, the violent games made me no more aggressive than the non-violent ones.  No difference.  In fact, I was hardly aggressive at all, ever.

I was bullied, not the bully.  I never killed anything larger than a spider, and usually at that age I'd have to call my dad in to kill it for me.

When I dreamed of killing, which was extremely rare (and I think didn't happen until my teenage years), I always found myself physically unable to kill.  My body in my dreams would not cooperate and allow me to kill, and I always felt a sense of dread while trying.  I don't know what that says about me psychologically, but there you have it.

I'll pause here to say that, yes, plenty of studies have been done to show no correlation between videogame violence and youth aggression, but since so many people distrust science these days, and put their faith in anecdotal evidence, this is my own eyewitness testimony to put on the heap.

So for me, violence meant nothing.  Indeed, I was allowed to watch rated R movies when I was young.  I remember walking into the living room at about age six while my dad was watching Conan the Barbarian, full of blood and heads being chopped off.  That Christmas I got an NES.

As far as I can tell, I didn't turn out too bad.

When I was that young, I didn't care about the graphics or the level of detail.  The family that babysat me had an Atari 2600, and I enjoyed the games on that just as much as I enjoyed the latest games for Sega Genesis or Windows 95.

Violence was something I simply took no notice of, and I bet none of my friends noticed either.

Recently I heard a story about how some parent with an adopted child was playing Portal 2 with said child, and at one point a robot made fun of the player for being adopted.  The parent was taken aback.  The child "swore she didn't hear anything."  I doubt that, but I think it's her way of saying "It's not a big deal, dad, let it go."

Children simply don't have any problem with videogames the way parents do.  They don't have a problem with music, movies, or any other form of entertainment.  No child is going to object to Harry Potter for having witchcraft in it unless their parents drill it into their head to be scared of it.

Parents hear about school shootings, and the old media blames videogames, so parents are quick to do the same.  Then it always comes to light that the children who commit mass murder aren't fans of videogames, or play them no more than anyone else.

Maybe it's the fault of overprotective parents that shelter their kids from the real world.  Maybe when kids suddenly get a taste of life, they are so unprepared that they go nuts.

I'd like to see research done on that.

But that's beside the point, I think.

Because lots of people will still object and say "But but but when my kid plays games, he gets angry!"  Yeah, maybe he does, but it's not the violence that does it.

Here's my hypothesis:  it's the difficulty of the game being played, not the level of violence that makes kids aggressive.

I get pissed off when I'm playing a game and can't get past some spot that's way outside of the difficulty curve.  It frustrates me, even as an adult, so much that I want to smash my keyboard or throw the controller at the TV.  It's just the same as if you're watching a movie, getting really into it, forgetting you're even watching a movie, and suddenly the DVD starts to skip.  That's basically what it's like to get stuck in a videogame:  your game essentially gets stuck at one spot, breaking your flow, breaking your enjoyment, breaking your suspension of disbelief, and you get angry.

If you pay attention to kids playing games, maybe you'll find out that that's the case with them, too.

That would be an appropriate study.  Have kids play the same game on different difficulty settings and see if they get angrier as they lose more often.  Frustration is a big cause of aggression, I can tell you that.

Don't blame game makers for putting too much violence in their games; blame game makers for making games too difficult and frustrating.  Or better yet, don't blame them at all, just don't let your kids playing games that are too difficult.

Maybe we should redesign our rating system to be based on difficulty, so kids can't buy games that will make them scream in frustration.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Article: The Problem with Achievements

I have noticed that games can be classified along a certain spectrum, with "flow" on one end, and "rewards" on the other.

Basically, there are games that try to give you a great experience by sucking you into the world and make you forget you're playing a game, and then there are games where you try to get all the achievements, upgrades, rewards and trophies until you see the words "100% complete" on the menu screen.

Prime examples of the former end are Adventure games like MYST, or moody games like Silent Hill, while the later game type includes Tony Hawk games, and casual genres like Tower Defense games.

Of course, the line grays in the middle, where games like RPGs might go.*

Now, here's the big problem:  the flow end of the spectrum is universally more fun than the reward side.

Hardly a controversial statement, of course; studies relating to games and other tasks have shown that when you do something with no reward, you're doing it simply because you enjoy it; you do it to do it, in other words.  But when you do something and expect a reward, the joy comes from receiving the reward, not performing the act.

Ever talked to a kid's baseball team that just lost a game?  Those kids didn't have fun.  The winners had fun.  But the teams played the same game.  To them, the batting, pitching, catching, throwing, and running is all just stuff you have to get through to score or prevent the opponent from scoring.  Every score is a small reward, as well as each out on the opponent.  The biggest reward is winning, and without it, the kids have no fun.

But if you listen to pros, who play the game because they love the game, when the press interviews the a player from the losing team, the disappointment is always mild:  "You win some you lose some, we'll just work on our game a bit more and practice, but we played a good game."

Then there is always the example of an ump making a bad call and the coach flips, or a fight happens on the field.  This happens when the team wants to win, they seek the reward, and when something sets them back they explode with rage.  Rage is not an emotion I tend to associate with a good time.

Pictured: fun!
And even though achievement games aren't always that fun, even though they might be frustrating, and we throw our controllers and scream when we screw up, we still play.

Rewards are addicting.  Rewards are nicotine and heroin.  A pleasant smoke becomes a necessary moneysink when the addiction kicks in.

The same works for games.  I have played completion games again and again, long after they stopped being fun, even after I've gotten 100% I reset and play again.  I don't even enjoy the rewards on the second runthrough, but I am still addicted and have to keep playing.

We shouldn't let our players be addicted to games.  They've already bought the game, so there is no need, from a business point of view, to keep them hooked.

Of course, different types of games and payment methods might appear to change the case, like MMOs, but even then, I argue that good old-fashioned enjoyable gameplay should be its own reward.  People will continue to play non-addictive, flow-driven MMOs as long as new content keeps getting released.

Rewards become a copout for bad games; it's almost as if the creator is saying "Sorry the game sucks, and thanks for sitting through it, so here's a cookie."  And even when the gameplay is good, a reward on top of that diminishes the enjoyment of the gameplay, making it feel worse than if there was no reward. (Again.)

Reward-based games are a guilty "pleasure" for me; I still play them often, even though I get no fun, and I wish I didn't waste my time on them.

Pictured: games!
We should fix this within the industry by minimizing, or at least offsetting reward-based games in favor of flow-based games.


*Aside:  My thoughts on the middle ground

I've noticed a major problem with RPGs that generally prevents me from liking too many, and ultimately, I think the cause is that the two sides of the flow/completion line are having a tug of war with RPGs.

While I do play RPGs, my first playthrough is an experience marked by atmosphere, storytelling, and as little grind as possible.  I want my RPG experience as close to the flow end of the spectrum as possible, and I don't like RPGs that don't give me that option.

After beating an RPG once, I switch gears and on a second playthrough my brain enters completion mode, and I try to get 100% completion, and I start to get frustrated when the story gets in the way.

This is the dichotomy that hurts my RPG playing experience, but it comes out just fine in other genres.  Notably, it works in the games which are "mostly moody" with extra content afterwards.  The best example that springs to mind is Shadow of the Colossus, where your first playthrough is forced into the flow side of the scale, and when you beat the game once, all of the extra content gets unlocked.  Shadow of the Colossus forces your hand and makes you play it the flow way first.  Silent Hill does the same thing.  Even God of War does this to a degree.

The opposite cannot happen.  I can't play a game to complete it first, then go for a moody second playthrough, because the moody side of the spectrum only really works once, on the first playthrough.  It's like watching a suspense movie a second time:  it loses the suspense because you know everything already.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Article: Curing Sequelitis with Name Recognition

One of the big concerns of AAA games these days is the horrid case of sequelitis so many companies have caught.  Both critics and players urge for a cure, but games with numbers in their titles are becoming the norm, and fears arise that the hardcore market is stagnating.

Not actually a sequel, just a sign of the end times.
Publishers cry that they don't want to take a chance on new games when tried-and-true premises are guaranteed moneymakers.  Getting publishers on board with new products is difficult when the offices are full of conservative businessmen.

But when I think about it, the cure might be slightly more tangential -- and simpler -- than we suspect.

Consider this:  when I walk into a bookstore, I can stroll over to the Ks and grab a Stephen King book, and just by knowing the author, I am 95% guaranteed it'll knock my socks off.  A 95% chance of awesome is a chance I'm willing to take.

Books don't come alphabetized by title, at least not primarily; books are ordered by author.  Same with CDs.  We know the artist, and we don't expect AC/DC's next album to be "Black in Black II", but we'll buy it no matter what the title.

Movies are a slightly different story.  They aren't alphabetized in the store by director or screenwriter.  But a savvy consumer knows his directors.  When I spy a new Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith movie, I have that same 95% chance of awesome.  Since the primary creative lead in a movie is usually the director, with some knowledge of names, I can pick out a new movie I've never seen before without the fear that it will suck.  I don't need to rent it first; I can just buy it straight.

Bring an umbrella; the weatherman said today's got a 95% chance of awesome.
Our marketing for games should be similar.  The Lead Designer or Creative Director should have his or her name right on the cover.  When I pick up a game with Dave Jaffe's name in the credits, I have that same guarantee.  But without research, I am not always aware of who the lead is on a game, because it's usually not on the box.

I think that if we succeed in turning game makers into household names, people will be willing to buy more games that aren't sequels.

Indies already do this, but it's much more rare to see much beyond American McGee on the cover of a game.

The idea isn't restricted to individual names, of course.  I'll buy anything by Team Ico.  Team names work just fine, especially if a director's name on the cover makes egos too big (and let's try to avoid that particular pitfall of movie-making).  As long as a team has a fingerprint, some clever marketing can do the trick.

Heck, the marketing doesn't even have to be that clever.  When game trailers come out, fade to black with white text at the beginning or end of the trailer with the words "A Game By Team Ico" or "Dave Jaffe Presents".

I think that if every trailer over the last five years had an extra two seconds added for the name recognition, those names could be much more famous, and we wouldn't be in half the rut we're in now.

It's a simple and seemingly unrelated change in marketing that cures sequelitis.  With names in players' heads instead of titles, they are more likely to pick up any game with American McGee on the cover than only the next Alice sequel.

It boils down to the player's confidence when making a purchase.  All that needs to happen is to shift that confidence from the game to its maker.  Just like you don't buy "Bat Out of Hell II" because you liked "Bat Out of Hell" but rather because you like Meat Loaf, a player should be buying God of War II because they like Dave Jaffe, not because they liked God of War.  Then when a new game comes out called "Epically Awesome Violent Fantasy", players are willing to buy it because the cover also proudly says "Dave Jaffe Presents" just above the title.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Article: The Importance of (Placeholder) Art

My imagination runs wild as I design my card game The Vortex.  I see an extensive variety of alien species, locations through the universe, and a plot coming together that might rival the scope of epic poems.

But other players cannot see what I see.  At present, the only descriptions of this vast setting are in the titles of the cards, and possibly the barest clues as to their characteristics given through the mechanical details described on the cards.

On many cards, the flavor text real estate is being taken up by card-specific rules, leaving the primary source of detail to the artwork.

Which there is none of.

Since The Vortex is in its early alpha stages, and since I am a terrible 2D artist, I designed the cards to leave room for later artwork, but I kept the spaces as just gray boxes for now.

Almost as good as The Last Supper.
Unfortunately, there are nearly two hundred unique cards, and the names are not enough for a casual player (my current testers) to be able to recall the rules on any given card at a glance.

As the testers memorize the cards, it will become less of a problem, but there is still a barrier of entry as I ask new players to test.

For players to be able to quickly identify and memorize new cards, I must throw in some placeholder artwork.

The problem becomes, then, a struggle between playability and ego.  I want players to easily be able to grasp the unique traits of each card, but I also want them to see at least some semblance of the style and tone I envision, without their imaginations being compromised by bad placeholder art.

Of course, the simple solution is to eschew ego and slap some art on the cards no matter how bad or irrelevant it is, because I'm testing mechanics, not my storytelling.

Though the solution is obvious, pride is a big thing to swallow (as much as I may pride myself that I have no pride), and I have to constantly remind myself what the right decision is, both for the present and the future.

I think the awful placeholder art also serves as a reminder to work on my art skills, which is good to cultivate.

So even though ego takes a hit, placeholder art is useful for both the player's grokking of the mechanics and my own improvement in the field.

This is a lesson that doesn't exist solely in non-digital games, of course; the same idea can and should be applied to videogames:

The exception.
When trying to test new mechanics pre-alpha, even if testers know they aren't getting the true experience of the game, they still want something interesting to look at.  Gray terrain and props bore the player, but some quick and dirty placeholder art is an easy fix.

It seems counterproductive to clutter a stage when the player should be concentrating on a mechanic, but it has the opposite effect of distraction.  Gray, bare geometry is in fact more distracting than art, because it is more foreign and sterile than is expected.

Personally, I've never been much of an art guy.  I used to hold the snobbish opinion that all that matters in games is mechanics, and art was unnecessary.  I slowly warmed to the idea that art is useful depending on what aesthetic you're going for; surely my favorite horror games like Silent Hill 2 needed the art just the way it was, and it wouldn't be the same if it was made for an NES instead of a PS2.  But now, the more I study how games create flow, I realize that most often, pure mechanics cannot sustain a videogame, and that art, sound, and story all contribute.

Of course, games that have little or no art, such as old Text Adventures or Dwarf Fortress inherently do not suffer from this problem, but in general, the sooner art can get in, the better.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Deconstruction: MYST - Part III: Story

The story of MYST is subtle and environment-driven.  There is little interaction with other characters, and the protagonist is silent throughout the game.

You don't know much at the beginning of the game.  The opening cinematic is mysterious and alludes to something much larger that you can't wrap your head around.

After that, you could boil down the description of all you know to a simple Adventure game description "You find yourself on an island."

You are given almost nothing, and you find yourself exploring in hopes of figuring out what you're even supposed to do.

Yet, if you can piece all the clues together, it presents a disturbing look at tyrants, blood betrayal, murder, imprisonment, lies, deceit, drugs, and torture.

The major difference between the story of MYST and that of most other games is that the story is not given to you; you have to find it for yourself.  There are no "cutscenes", per se, no chokepoints where story can be thrust upon you; there are only a handful of journals which survived being burned (which, as one of the few faults of MYST, it is far too much of a coincidence that the journals with descriptions of the Ages you are to visit are almost the only ones to survive the fire).

The narrative is interactive in MYST, which is part of what led to its success.  You felt like an archeologist, uncovering the stories of the dead, discovering the horrors and secrets of this world through exploration.

Not quite like that.
Just about the only direct clue given to you at the beginning of the game is Atrus' note to Catherine, which spells out where to find a recorded message of his.  After that, you're on your own.

While most games of the time (and still today) separated story from gameplay, MYST did its best to mingle the two together.

Read Part IV:  The First Puzzle

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Article: The Case for Episodic Gaming, Episode 1

Movies and television are two sides of the same coin.  One offers long, one-shot experiences which take a year or more to make, and have gigantic budgets.  The other offers multiple, short experiences with smaller budgets that take a week or two to make.  Right now games use a movie model for the most part, but I think games can take great advantage of the television model.

It's really just the difference between games as they mostly are now versus the new (but barely touched) trend of episodic gaming.

I think there is room for both kinds of games, but I would like to see episodic gaming reach a higher prominence in the industry.  I think it will help to expand the industry both in sales and in reputation.

In this article (and in follow-ups) I will look at episodic gaming from various perspectives to show that it works well in all regards, and that it's feasible on a bigger scale than we use.  It may seem a bit jumbled, because it's difficult to separate each part from another, as they connect together in so many ways.

First, however, I would like to define episodic gaming, because the way I would like to see it done is a bit different than what we see today.  My model follows television much more closely than what current episodic games do.

Episodic Games should:

-Have a release schedule of about one per month
-Have a playtime between 1/2 hour and an hour
-Be cheap
-Have "seasons"

The first three are self-explanatory, but the last is a bit out there.  By "seasons", I mean exactly what you see on television.  A single season might be composed of seven or more episodes, then there is a break, then a new season begins with another seven or more episodes.

While each project would play with the variables, this is a good rule of thumb to begin with.

The Player's Perspective

As a player, I love episodic gaming.  I love TV shows, too.  I have more affection for my favorite television characters than I do for my favorite movie characters, because I get to spend more time with my TV characters.  I watch my movie heroes on screen for three hours at best, then wait a year for another adventure.  By that point, I've forgotten what the hero's name is.  But every week I get to spend 1/2 hour of quality time with my favorite TV show characters.

Seriously, Picard is cooler.  Debate settled.
With episodic gaming, the same can occur.  Players can get attached to the characters, and will stick with the series, shelling out money as the series continues.

However, I'm not paying $80 for a half hour game.  I'm not even paying $10.  Need to lure me in with a better payment system.

Aside:  Payment Plans

I was going to save this for the Business Perspective (which I will get to in a later part), but payment plans go here best:

Do what DOOM did.  Offer Episode 1 for free.  Forever.  Stick it on Steam, and Gametap, and whatever the latest service is.  Get Players hooked before charging them for it.  That's what demos are.  That's what a TV pilot is.  Make Episode 1 double-length, to make sure you get people interested enough.

Then charge $10 an episode until the season ends.  Some gamers will pay up, some won't.  After the season's over, just as Season 2 is beginning, you put Season 1 on DVD.  That's a metaphor, but that's what you do, and it's where you get all the gamers who wouldn't pay per episode; they'll pay per season.  Offer a bundled Season 1, with extra features, with commentaries, with coupons for $5 off next season, with concept art, with interviews, with deleted scenes (in this case half-finished levels that interested players might like to explore)... tons of great stuff can be put on it with not too much extra work.

I may not buy $10 episodes, but I'll buy the full season for $70, which comes out the same.

The Level Designer's Perspective

As a level designer, I love episodic gaming.  I get to make one level a month for as long as the series stays strong.
On a half-hour episode, I would not be the only level designer, of course.  Five or six level designers would be plenty for that scale.

Episodes would be made well in advance of their release date; almost all of them should be in the bin when the season launches.  So while there may be an off-season as far as release schedule is concerned, designers would work year-round, devoting as much time to the level design and testing their levels as possible.

The Writer's Perspective

As a writer, I love episodic gaming.  I get to write consistently for characters, and I get to be much more involved in the design process.

Many games today suffer from having writers work in solitary, as if they are contracted, or using a designer whose job is not primarily writing that takes on the duty.

But writers should be as much a part of the team as any other kind of designer.  Episodic gaming helps to take care of this a fair bit.

In a television show, the writing matters more than special effects.  The dialogue is an integral part of the show, and it's television's bread and butter.  Equally, in episodic gaming, a bigger emphasis on writing is necessary to attract gamers.  The characters need to be likable, not something you put up with just because you like the gameplay so much.  Because this is such an investment for the player, if the characters suck they won't keep playing (and paying for) new episodes.

This is why we see Back to the Future:  The Game as an Adventure game.  Adventure games notoriously have a lot of story and beloved characters.

Episodic games can work for any genre, of course, as long as we spend just a little extra time on the writing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Article: Making Sound Important

Videogames are a primarily visual and secondarily aural medium.  Consoles are, in essence, making a TV screen interactive.  Of our five senses, only two of them are used.

I would not count touch here, as pressing buttons is a form of input not output (you press buttons to do things, not feel things).  An attempt was made at tactile sensation with vibrating controllers, but they are disappearing in favor of motion-based controllers, and the two are currently incompatible.

So, with only two senses in use, you'd think we'd do everything we can with those.

Unfortunately, sound has yet to be truly integrated into games.  They rarely factor into gameplay, and when they do, it is often a gimmick.  Atmospheric games use sound the best, like horror games, which rely on sounds not only to scare, but to let you know where enemies are off-screen.
But the majority of games could be played mute, with subtitles for story.  This is true for TV as well, so it does make sense that television's flaws are repeated in games.

Now, the argument has been made that a game's soundtrack, sound effects, and ambience, while not necessary, greatly enhance the experience.  For instance, I have been told multiple times that Final Fantasy VII  is half as good without sound.  I think it is a fair assessment.

So, sure, I'm halving the fun if I listen to my own music, but the fact that I can still mute the game without rendering it unplayable still presents a problem.

Why is this a problem, exactly?  Because this shows that sound is simply not integrated quite the way visuals are in games.  If I turn off the visuals in a game, it's almost impossible to play.

Of course, not all games should be so integrated; naturally there is a place for both.  I will not argue that some of the greatest games ever made do not have good sound integration.

Indeed, old Text Adventures hardly need a screen, proving that not even visuals are a necessary component to all games.

But, just as we strive for better gameplay, depth of interactivity, and photorealistic graphics, we should also strive for integrated sound with gameplay, without resorting to gimmicks.

I feel as though videogames have a long way to go, and can learn a lot from sound-based games that already exist.

Consider Marco Polo, a water game that relies primarily on sound.  It's basically blind Tag in a pool.  Marco Polo, itself, is a gimmick game, but it's a clear example of sound-based interactivity (to the point of eschewing visuals).

But you can also rely on sound while playing Hide and Seek, Manhunt (the non-digital game), and even Paintball.  While sound is not strictly necessary for any of these, you can become a much better player by honing your sense of hearing.

Perhaps this is where videogames can start:  without resorting to gimmicks, games can be made to rely on sound in such a way that, while not being necessary, is so useful that muting it essentially cripples the player -- that is, cripples the gameplay, not just the overall experience.

Some genres already do this, such as Stealth games that require you to listen for enemies to avoid them.

There are also games in the Adventure and RPG genres that make use of sound to make exploration easier.  Often there is an item that will make a noise when you enter a room with a treasure or other secret in it.

Expanding on that idea, it is possible to make sound almost mandatory and necessary to find those secrets, not a reward to make the job easier.  Suppose there was a game where all secret passages were crawling with bugs.  If you can hear bugs, you know there's one around.

I think the bug is looking for a tunnel.
Incorporating subtle sound cues presents a slight problem, however:  if they are loud enough to play over the music, they are as obvious as making a secret glow neon, and just as gimmicky.  Playing them too low means you won't hear it under the music.

Oh, God, we have to get rid of music!

Sometimes, yes, perhaps we should.

Game developers listen to Hollywood way too much.  Games have epic soundtracks these days, with composers who have fame in games equivalent to John Williams or Danny Elfman.  Some soundtracks stick with us forever.

But Hollywood knows there is a time and a place for music, and on occasion they even try to immerse you without music.  Consider first-person movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.  They have no music precisely because it would destroy the mood they're going for.

Why do movies use music in the first place?  This is a legacy carryover from the silent era, when a piano, a record, or even a band would play to add sound to the moving pictures.  Once we could hear the actors speak and the trains whistle, we lost the need for music, but it was already a habit by that point.

And games just copied the formula.

Try playing a few games with the sound effects on but the music off.  Try Half-Life or Doom.  Both games suddenly have a much different feel, and you might find they even improve by eliminating the music.  I often turn off the music when I play skateboarding games.

A lot can be done with ambience that traditional music can't do.  Or ambient music, which blends in with the environment, like Silent Hill's industrial soundtrack, can give us the best of both worlds.

Figuring out how to add sound properly to truly enhance gameplay, and knowing when and where to make musical sacrifices, can add a new dimension to games still lacking today, and can further evolve games into an atmospheric art form.

Monday, August 1, 2011

One month in...

Now that I've had this blog for a month, I've learned that my original expectations were too low.  I thought I would only post once a week, but I seem to have made thrice that.

I shall continue posting development logs and deconstructions, and will start writing other articles as the mood takes me.

When it comes to deconstructions, I will be bouncing around to different games, starting a new deconstruction, then jumping back to an old one to continue it.  Similarly, The Vortex is not the only game I have going, so I'll be posting development logs of more projects soon.

As the name of the blog implies, I am scatterbrained (I hope that pun is evident!), and that is the theme of this blog.  Expect series to appear, ramp up, drop off, get picked back up, drop off again, etc.

I'll now try to make my posts more regular, as well.  So I'm going to stick to a schedule of Tuesday/Thursday posts.  Development logs, being timely, might be posted on different days, as needed.  If I find that the Tuesday/Thursday schedule is too much or too little or too strict, I will make adjustments again at the beginning of next month.

I will continue to experiment with the schedule until I get into a solid groove.

Also expect to see deconstruction segments which are gameplay videos, possibly with voiceovers (no guarantees on that).  As I dive into the level design of games, I will be using video and screenshots to show my points.