Thursday, September 29, 2011

Deconstruction: MYST - Part IV: The First Puzzle

Now it's time to get into the details of the game.  What follows is not meant to be a walkthrough as much as an explanation of the player experience, both on an intellectual and emotional level.  I am not longer just saying how wonderful the game is; now I will explain what went right and what went horribly wrong.

The player begins bewildered by the opening cutscene, perhaps finding that the voiceover made no sense at all.

Once given control, the player begins in a dark empty hole with nothing but the book of MYST.  Opening the book, the player discovers a moving picture which leads to the island of MYST.  Perhaps this book is one of a kind, or perhaps this is the way this world operates.  The player might draw the conclusion that the character in the opening cutscene used the book to jump into, and the player is meant to follow.

Once on the island, little exploration is needed before the player finds a note from Atrus which mentions marker switches.

While the player has already come across a marker switch, the player may not make the connection between the object and the name, but early puzzles in MYST handhold a little.  This puzzle is nearly given to the player on a dish.

From the note, the player is led to the secret chamber on the dock.  A hologram generator can be found in the room, and a note for a couple of preprogrammed holograms.  One of these is a visual of a marker switch.

With this knowledge, the player explores the island, counting marker switches.

After searching the island, the player will (hopefully) have found all eight marker switches, then go back to the dock and input the proper code.

The reward for solving this puzzle is a message from Atrus, discussing the destruction of books, the surviving books being placed in the "places of protection", and mentions that a tower rotates.

The player may have spotted the burned books in the library already, while exploring for marker switches.  If the player considers that perhaps many books lead to other worlds just like the book of MYST, then the player might come to the conclusion that whole worlds might have been destroyed by one of Atrus' sons, Sirrus or Achenar.

We are off to a bad start if the player doesn't come to this conclusion (as many players did not), because any emotional impact from this message would be completely missing.

Missing: emotional impact.
While mystery novels and other such artworks provide these kinds of thrills -- dawning horror based on intellectual discoveries -- most do so slowly.  A reader of a mystery is not expected to reach any conclusions in the first five pages.  The revelations in mystery novels come at the end, after the world has been set up, the plot has begun, characters have been introduced, etc.

MYST throws you in so quickly that a player is not prepared to learn about such high stakes and atrocities after five minutes of walking around a pretty island.  The emotional whiplash might set the tone for the rest of the game, or might go completely over a player's head.

However, players who cannot make this intellectual leap are playing the wrong game, because the puzzles soon become so difficult that the one that should have been made just now is a walk in the park.  In this way, the developers are defining their target audience.

There is a problem with this, though.  The conclusion that needs to be drawn is that the books that have been destroyed are worlds just like the book of MYST.  But if the player flips through the books in the library, although most are destroyed, the ones left intact are journals with no transportation quality to them.

Some players, therefore, might conclude that the destroyed books are also journals, and that the book of MYST is a unique specimen.  Or, if there are both kinds of books in abundance, they would certainly be separated that way a normal library separates books.  Logically, it makes sense that, if journals are found on the main shelves on the library on MYST island, then there is a second set of shelves or second library with books that contain worlds.

So if Sirrus or Achenar burned a bunch of journals, it's not nearly as big a deal as if they burned whole worlds.

"I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!"
If the player has not yet discovered the shelves of burned books before hearing Atrus' message, there is a fifty-fifty chance that the conclusion the players draws is correct.  If the player has already discovered the shelves, the odds are significantly less that the player will realize what Atrus is saying.

One of the most significant flaws of MYST occurs in the first few minutes of playing.  It is meant to be the game-changer that defines the experience for the player and makes them understand that this is not just a pretty place; there is danger here.

Unfortunately, this is a rather unforgivable offense that mars what might have been a flawless work of art.  Nor was this corrected in its remake, realMYST.

I would like to be able to continue this deconstruction by saying "let's suppose the player concluded how he was meant to" and move on from there, but I can't, because most players who completed the game did not necessarily conclude correctly.  Only in hindsight does the player recognize what Atrus has said.  While the conclusion should eventually be made, it does not hit at the moment it is meant to.  The player might come to an understanding after discovering the first age book on MYST island; or the player might forget the message completely, and lose a significant moment in the game.

All is not lost, however.  MYST may have messed up the first major emotional revelation, but others were right on the mark.

Read Part V: The Library

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Development Log: Vortex #6 - Hiatus

Yes, it's been a couple of months since last I spoke about Vortex.  Basically I've created nearly 200 cards, printed them on nice paper, cut them out, sleeved them... and that's it.

The problem with multiplayer games is that you need other people to play them, of course.  Since I live in a gaming dead zone at the moment, it's tough to find people that like to play card games, let alone are willing to test a new one.

I've come up with some alternate cards that I can swap in if I discover some cards are just too powerful or too weak, but I have yet to discover what those cards are because I've tested the game only a few times.  I've also come up with some rule tweaks that may simplify (or complicate) things, but I have yet to test those out, either.

While I'm still looking for testers, I can't really say I've made much progress.  Vortex was a fun game to design, but I've come up with the mechanics and I need to test the game before I can balance it, or even significantly change it if need be.

So until I can give a significant update on the testing of the game, Vortex is going to be put on hiatus, and I will work on other projects.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Article: Stand Up and Play

The Wii has made a bold attempt at changing the way controllers work.  The PS Move copied it, then the Xbox Kinect brought it to the next level, eliminating plastic altogether in favor of the player's body becoming the controller.

The Kinect will be a gimmick for a bit, but I think that the next gen consoles will feature such a device as the primary means of control.

This is a great thing for getting non-gamers gaming and putting consoles in every home, making them as much a part of normal life as the television they're attached to.

I remember the first time I ever stayed up all night.  I was playing Dinopark Tycoon, and I had no idea how long I had been playing until it was already four in the morning.  I was shocked; I didn't expect it to be later than nine PM!

Dinopark Tycoon.  Awesome.
I think this happened because my brain was moving but my body wasn't.  My body had no physical exhaustion to make me tired and tell me to go to bed.  This has been a problem with videogames for a long time.

But now the much more physical controllers are changing that.  Not only are they more user-friendly for non-gamers, but they tire you out.  Sure, playing Wii Tennis is not as exhausting as real tennis, but it's a step up from sitting down with a controller in your hands.

Nintendo didn't need to come up with the Wii Fit, because people will start to get in shape from normal Wii games, and getting in better physical shape makes you a better player, whether you're playing a physical game or not.

Physical shape has a direct correlation with mental agility, which is evident from kids to Alzheimer's patients.  Long have older generations claimed that videogames will make you lazy and rot your brain, but we can now prove them wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Some hardcore gamers backlashed against the Wii when it first came out, claiming that it was more a baby's toy than a console.  Hardcore gamers who bought it discovered that much more subtle movements could be made to achieve the same effects in games like Wii Sports, so they sat on the couch and played the Wii as they'd always played videogames.

Not pictured:  how the Wii is supposed to be played.
It was strange to me that such a reaction would occur.  There was actual resistance to getting up and moving while playing videogames, rather than a huge welcome and a thanks from gamers tired of the overused two-handed controller.

While Nintendo tried to get new gamers, they alienated the old.  Now, with Sony's and Microsoft's attempt at similar schemes, hardcore gamers are grudgingly accepting that this is the way games are moving.

I find it funny that the original gamers were tech geeks pioneering the field, and now those same gamers are hesitant to try new things.  It's like being a movie buff when the talkies came out, and disliking the fact that you actually have to listen to movies now.

Videogames are still in an early era, and we should embrace every new invention that comes along, until it has demonstrated itself to be a failure, rather than jumping on the bandwagon and disliking anything new.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Article: The Technological Constraints of Art

Why do I feel like the digital world is fragile?

I don't own an eBook or an iPod.  I get my novels in paperback or hardcover, and I get my music on CDs.  I'm 25 and I'm already an old geezer who doesn't like all this new-fangled technology.

I think I may be paranoid of new technology.  When an online music store was shutdown, people who purchased their music through that site lost it all, because, while they downloaded the music and it was on their hard drives, it was encrypted so that only the music store software could read it and had to connect with the server to verify its authenticity.  So listeners lost everything they paid for because it became out of date.

This happens with videogames too.  I once had an NES, moved to a Sega Genesis, then a PS1, and up the chain.  As my computer got upgraded, DOS-based games couldn't be played anymore.  To play games I once enjoyed, I had to download an emulator, and even then I might not be able to find all the games I once owned.  Some of my favorite PC games are still not abandonware, and I can't play games that I should rightfully have the ability to play.

But it turns out, I guess, I never really bought these games; I just rented them for an unspecified number of years.  Sure, I never returned my copy, but the act of degradation means they got lost as time and technology marched on.

The ink in a book may smudge to dust someday, but it will outlast me.  If I bought a Kindle, and the Kindle went bust, and a new company makes a new eBook, I've lost my novels.  I'd rather have bookshelves than what amounts to a Gameboy for books, because all I have to worry about is an unlikely fire than a guaranteed obsolescence.

So this thought disturbs me about games.  Chess has lived for hundreds of years, but Super Mario Bros. is basically dead.  It began on the NES, became outdated, became illegally available through emulators eventually, and has now made a return on the Wii.  But when the Wii gets outdated, what happens?  Will we find more and more new ways to keep Super Mario Bros.?  If so, then it may live as well as Chess.

But I don't know.  Maybe a single copy of it will live in the interactive portion of a historical museum someday (I surely hope there will be an interactive wing, or it'll be useless), but beyond that I don't see Super Mario Bros. lasting hundreds of years.

Maybe Super Mario Bros. isn't the classic we wish it was, and it's no more than a cave painting of the digital age.  Maybe videogaming's equivalent of The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane have yet to come about, and we shouldn't worry about our baby steps.

Perhaps someday we'll create an end-all-be-all of consoles, and a new one will never need to be invented, and the classics will be available forever on that system, but I doubt that too.

The technological aspect is one thing, but the artists themselves are another.

Do we have to wait a few hundred years before there is a gaming Da Vinci or Van Gogh?  How much longer until a gaming Shakespeare?  Heck, will videogames have another crash, or did we learn our lesson and are we beyond that?

My real question is:  are we still in Precambrian gaming times?

Based on the speed of technology, I feel like perhaps gaming should outpace movies.  If the first early motion picture cameras were invented in the 1860s, and the first truly everlasting film, The Wizard of Oz, came about in 1939, then we had to wait over 70 years for the first lasting work of art in film.

So if Tennis for Two on the oscilloscope was the precursor to videogames in 1958, the benchmark videogame should happen in the 2020s or so.  But if the speed of technology means things happen faster than previous technologies, we should be at the turning point now, or have already had it.

Perhaps, however, it's not technology that matters in this instance, but human creativity.  It took thousands of years from cave paintings until Dali thought drooping clocks might be a cool thing to paint.

I think videogames are still in their infancy, and we've yet to see real artists emerge with completely radical ways of looking at games; but we've also got to settle down and create a system that doesn't need an upgrade, the way oils and canvas are still around hundreds of years after their invention.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Deconstruction: DOOM - Part VI: Enemies

In DOOM, there are only ten enemy classes, but most of them offer a unique feature that can make them either challenging or helpful.

The two helpful enemies are Former Humans and Former Human Sergeants.  These two enemies are zombies that fire pistol rounds or shotgun shells, respectively, and after killing them, ammo for the gun they used can be picked up.

Imps, Barons of Hell, Cyberdemons, and Spiderdemons are all simple enemies that fire projectiles.  Imps are standard enemies, Barons of Hell are bosses at the end of Episode 1, although they become standard enemies or minibosses later on, a Cyberdemon is the boss of Episode 2, and Spiderdemons are bosses of Episodes 3 and 4.

He told you he was a boss.  He lied to you.
Demons do not have projectiles, but instead run at the player and bite.  Spectres are demons that are "cloaked" the way the Predator cloaks in the Predator movie franchise.  The look to these enemies is similar to when the player character grabs an Invisibility powerup.

Cacodemons fire projectiles, but float, so that they are not restricted by ledges or walls.

Lost Souls take from both Demons and Cacodemons, in that they float, but have no projectiles.  Instead they act as the projectile by charging at the opponent.  The similarity to a projectile was not lost on the id staff, and in fact, by Doom II they become a new enemy's projectile.

These are all the enemies in DOOM.  They are a short list of seven standard enemies, one miniboss, and two bosses.

However, the main innovation in DOOM about enemies is not their individual traits, but how they act with each other.  Enemies of the same class, for the most part, band together to destroy you.  When there are enemies of more than one class in the same room, if one accidentally hits another one with a projectile, they will turn against each other and you can find a safe spot and watch the fight.

The two Human classes and Lost Souls take this a step further, and will kill members of their own class, as well.

This feature means that when level designers place enemies, they have to be careful about which type of enemies they want and how many.  If enemies of different classes are in the same room, but there are few of them, the likelihood of an enemy-on-enemy brawl is not likely, because they don't get in each other's way.  But if, say, a Demon or two is charging at the player, and Imps are lobbing fireballs from the back line, odds are the Demons are going to get hit, turn around, and go after them.

On some occasions, the designers carefully placed enemies like this so this would happen.  In DOOM II, for instance, MAP08:  Tricks and Traps has a room with one Cyberdemon and a ton of Barons of Hell.  The Barons are facing away from the player, but the Cyberdemon sees the player immediately.  The Cyberdemon is placed at the far end of the room, so the Cyberdemon will start firing rockets at the player, hitting the Barons, and all Hell breaks loose.

This "brawl" feature allows the player to conserve ammo and avoid confrontation, and can be used in many situations, although it can often be tough to pull off.  Running between enemies and hoping they accidentally shoot each other is a tricky maneuver, and the results can be disastrous if misjudged.

Read Part VII: Difficulty

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Article: Pausing Creativity

I hate weekends.

Weekends force me to pause my creative work so I can do chores.  In a normal 5/40 job, it's mandatory that I take two consecutive days off each week so I can lose the flow of my work.

Breaking flow is a major snag in creative work.  An artist will not stop painting because it is Saturday.  Stephen King's advice for writers is to write four hours a day and read four hours a day.  He does not make an exception for weekends.

I think game development is in the same line of work.  It's a creative endeavor.

I find that when I am doing something creative, and I miss as little as one day of work, my drive to work on the project goes down.  Getting distracted with other things has some psychological impact on my desire to work on a project.  I can certainly get that drive back, but it takes an extra day or two to kick back into full gear.  So a day of lost work actually translates into a day of lost work and two days of less productive work.  There may be some non-linear formula for calculating multiple days of lost work in a row, and perhaps it is different for everyone.  Perhaps some people have no trouble jumping in and out of a creative project.

I don't wanna!
But I am most productive when I am deep into a project and nothing distracts me at all.  It's like being lost in another world where everything in life goes away except food, sleep, and bathroom breaks.  Having to pause that for two days is like being ripped from a great dream:  you just can't get back into it once you're woken up.

So I tend to despise weekends when the rest of the world can't wait for them.  I can't wait for Monday, so I can start to get back into gear, and I can't wait for Tuesday when I can finally be as productive as I was last week.

Think about what kinds of jobs the 5/40 workweek was invented for:  factory jobs.  These are mind-numbing jobs that people have because they need to pay the bills.  It's tiring, boring, laborious work.  People don't want to be cooped up in a factory their whole lives, and want to be able to relax.

But when you're in a creative field, work is not a burden.  Even in non-creative fields, many people enjoy their jobs thoroughly.  Why stop doing what you love for two days each week?

Sure, there is always the worry about overworking employees, and 40 hours a week is certainly a good length of time to work without overdoing it.  So for any job, no matter if it's a tedious or creative job, forty hours a week is a good rule of thumb so as not to overwork people.

However, I think in creative fields, those forty hours a week could be redistributed.  Consider the normal 5/40 week to be represented as 0-8-8-8-8-8-0 (S-M-T-W-T-F-S).  If we instead shift the numbers to be 5-6-6-6-6-6-5, then the distribution becomes even (without resorting to decimals, of course).  Now there is no hiccup in creativity.  For simplicity, let's call this a 7/40 schedule.

To me, this solves the problem quite nicely.  I would love to work more days a week with fewer hours a day.

Now, the only real problem, to me, is people who have families who want to be able to spend weekends with their loved ones.  For them, a standard 5/40 schedule is desired.  I think any given company should accommodate both options.

I think about my time working at a software company that had a 9/80 schedule.  I worked that schedule the first year, and the second year I worked a simple 5/40.  I preferred the 5/40, because the extra hour each day during 9/80 began to drain me.  Heck, working eight hours a day can be a drain, too.  I would have been happy to work a 7/40 schedule capping at six hours a day.

I think one of the problems with such a scheme, however, is the kneejerk reaction "I can't give up my weekends!"  To me, this is silly for two reasons.

Firstly, of course, you're still working the same number of hours, so the number of hours you have off is the same (excepting commuting time), it's just redistributed.  Going into work at nine allows you to get off at four on week days, and three on weekends (assuming a one-hour lunch).

Secondly, as I stated at the beginning, I reject the notion that weekends are something to look forward to.  I look forward to doing my job, because I enjoy it.

Naturally such a work schedule is not for everyone, especially those who have a strong personal life that fights for attention, but I think people who want to spread their hours should have the option in a company.  In some companies, this is simply not allowed because the place is locked all weekend.

I think the 7/40 schedule would create more productive workers out of many people, myself included.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Article: Crossing Genres

One of the cardinal rules of videogame design is "Don't cross the genres."  And 99% of the time, split genre games fail miserably.

This is because players might like one of the genres but dislike the other, and instead of doubling your demographic, you turn off both sets of players.

However, this reasoning only applies to revolutionary breeds, which can be a large pill to swallow in one go.  But evolutionary convergence flips the rule on its head.

For instance, RPGs are considered a fairly hardcore market.  People who play fast-paced action, racing, or sports games are loath to try an RPG.  Too much strategy and not enough direct in-the-moment control, or too much story and too many cutscenes and not enough gameplay, or menu-driven systems feel like a Microsoft product; these are all common complaints from RPG detractors.  Such players would never play an RPG/Racing hybrid if they were die-hard racing fans with any one of these complaints.

Yet, slowly but surely, aspects of RPGs have snuck into many genres, including Racing games.  Nearly any game with an upgrade system can be traced back to RPGs, and owes D&D a thanks.

Early Racing games offered one car, and your skill was all that mattered.  Eventually, the player was given an option of cars, but the differences were purely visual, and the option was a necessity when Racing games became multiplayer.

Once upon a time, these were your options. 
At some point someone had the bright idea to create discrete statistics for different cars.  One might have a higher top speed with low acceleration and loose steering, and another might be just the opposite of that.  If cars in the game could crash, a stat was devised for how much damage the car could take before blowing up.

Now players could pick vehicles based on their play style.  This might have been an independent genius who created the stat system based on real car or racing stats, but I suspect he liked RPGs, too.

And if he didn't then the next guy in line most certainly did, for soon after that, upgrades were created.

At first, players might win a race and unlock a new car with better stats.  Then someone came up with the idea to let the player upgrade their original vehicle.  But to keep the player from upgrading all at once, the player would have to win money from races, then use the earnings to buy upgrades.

The final system is very similar to the RPG system of leveling up, combined with buying equipment, wrapped in a simplified package to meet the needs of the Racing genre.

Today, everything from Action bloodbaths like God of War and casual match-3 games have upgrade systems.

Similarly, RTSs were once considered a hardcore genre, but the casual Tower Defense genre has its roots in RTSs, combined with a dash of old arcade games like Space Invaders and Centipede.

Adventure games like MYST are too mind-bending and sluggishly dull for Action gamers, but navigation-based puzzles give Action games an intellectual depth that ultimately blends Action with Adventure.

Many genres have wormed their way into others, so much in some cases that we now use compound words to describe them, like Action-Adventure and Puzzle-RPG.  These genres were slowly introduced, so audiences could get used to them.

No, seriously.
If someone said "I want to make an RTS-Racing hybrid," it would bomb.  But when a designer is playing an RTS and thinks "Hey, that mechanics might be cool in a Racing game," the then combo has a chance.  And if that's successful, perhaps another RTS mechanic gets put in the sequel, and so on until the line between genres is too fuzzy to detect.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Deconstruction: DOOM - Part V: Pickups

While the general rule of FPSs and games in general is "pick up anything that's not nailed down," DOOM offers a selection of interesting pickups that make the player rethink that idiom.  While no pickup is strictly bad for a player, some have timers or other properties that can make a Player sidestep them if they don't need them just yet.

Of course there are the weapons and the ammo for them, which have uses discussed in Part III.  Beyond that, there is a Backpack which gives you some ammo for every weapon, as well as doubles the amount of ammo you can carry of each type.

Because of the ammo cap limitation, sometimes you don't want to pick up an ammo clip, shell, rocket, or cell if you are near the cap, because you won't get the full extent of the pickup, which can make you reconsider what weapon to use to "waste" some ammo in battle to make full use of the nearby pickup.

Health-wise, there is a similar system.  There are two kinds of Medikits which raise your health by 10 or 25, to a maximum of 100.  However, your health can actually reach 200 by use of Health Potions, which raise your health by 1, but can break the normal 100 "max".  However, if you try to pick up a Medikit while your health is 100 or above, you do not pick it up.  But you do pick up Health Potions even if you've capped your health completely.  So you may want to sidestep Health items until necessary.  This also holds true for Soul Spheres, which add 100 Health to a max of 200.

Armor also has a similar, though less robust system.  You can get Security Armor which bumps you directly to 100 (and you don't pick it up if you're already there) and Combat Armor, which bumps you directly to 200.  Armor Bonuses add 1 to the maximum of 200.

I always wondered if the Doomguy had 200 heads or something.
The interaction between armor types can be noticed right from the first level.  In E1M1, there are 3 Armor Bonuses in front of a Security Armor.  By picking up the Armor Bonuses first, you raise your armor from 0 to 3, and then picking up the Security Armor raises your armor from 3 to 100.  There are 3 more Armor Bonuses in the same room, against the walls, and if you then pick up those, your armor increases from 100 to 103.  You learn this quickly, and begin to understand the quirky nature of the system, and it affects your later choices about what to collect and when.

One other interesting quirk of Armor is that Security Armor protects from 1/3 of the health damage dealt, while Combat Armor protects from 1/2 of the damage.  If you last picked up Combat Armor, your armor drains to below 100, and you pick up Security Armor, your protection actually decreases.  This can also change the strategy of the player when deciding whether to pick up fresh armor or not.

Beyond the basic powerups of weapons, ammo, health, and armor, there are a number of other protections, such as Radiation Suits, which protect against acid and lava for a minute before wearing off.  Players want to be careful about when to grab them and plunge into an acid-soaked channel, because they don't know how far it is to the other side, if there even is another side.

Partial Invisibility and Invulnerability help during battle, and Light Amp Visors allow you to see dark rooms as if they were brightly lit.  All of these have timers, as well, so players have to decide if their situation warrants their use before grabbing them.

Berserk Packs give you a nice health bonus, but also give your fists incredible strength for the level, but this is at the cost of the range of weapons.  You can kill the 5 lowest-health enemies in one hit, but you have to get close enough to do so.  While this seems like a pickup you want to collect immediately, so you always have the option to switch to fists, the health bonus may make a player rethink when to pick it up.

Some pickups are always good to collect, however.  Computer Maps let you see the whole level, and last for the entire level.  Keys open up new areas of a level, which are almost always necessary for advancement.

With this small but intricate selection of pickups, DOOM becomes a much more strategic game than a simple run-and-gun.  This also paved the way for later games to consider that not all pickups should necessarily be held onto and stored for use whenever a player likes.  This has come to apply even to weapons now, giving the player a greater feel of realism -- after all, even a Space Marine probably can't hold eight weapons at once.

Read Part VI:  Enemies

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Two Months In...

Last month kind of turned into "article month" partly because I wanted to have a good base number of articles to match the number of deconstructions I have, and partly because that's just what came to me.  I'll be getting back into deconstructions and development logs this month.

I also intended to get ahead of myself in my posts, so I would have a backup of articles/deconstructions/whatever.  If I had done so, I'd start updating more often, like three times a week instead of two.  However, this is not the case, so I'm going to keep the same Tuesday/Thursday schedule that I already have for September, and see where I am at the end of next month.

So for the time being, the schedule is remaining the same, but there will hopefully be a little bit more variety in the posts this month.  Enjoy!