Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Next month: Dominion

Unfortunately it's still crunch time for a project I'm volunteering on, so the videos I promised will be a little while longer, since videos take far more time to complete than simple text.

So what I think I'll do this month is post some cards I designed for an expansion to the card game Dominion.  First, however, I'll review Dominion to bring you up to speed if you've never played it, so you get the fundamental idea of it.

Dominion Box & Cards
Simpler than Magic: The Gathering, but more complicated than Go Fish.
If you like Dominion and already own it, the cards I've designed can be easily printed out in the proper dimensions to be played with.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Article: Book-like and Movie-like Games

I often try to categorize games in new ways, to see if it helps players to figure out what types of games they like best.  I've previously discussed games in terms of their story, their protagonist description, and even their emotional content.

Now let's split them up in a new way.  There are games which are movie-like, and games which are book-like.

Movie-like games are games that go for as much realism as possible for graphics, physics, sound, and so on.  They try to make you feel like you are truly in another world, battling aliens or terrorists or whathaveyou.  Movie-like games are more common today than they ever have been, particularly in the hardcore market.

Book-like games are games that abstract out a lot and require you to use your imagination.  They may have simple graphics and unrealistic mechanics.  Book-like games are the way games began, and they continue to be popular for both casual and hardcore gamers.

The line on the scale for differentiating the two is fuzzy and is constantly moving.  In general, however, you can say that the clearer the image, the more movie-like it is.

Way back when, book-like games were all there were.  Pong is book-like.  You have to use your imagination (if you want to) to pretend those lines are Ping Pong paddles and the little white square pixel is a ball (this was before we had color... or circles).  Text-based Adventures are book-like, of course.

Super Mario Bros. is book-like.  While the forms are there, and you don't have to use much imagination to see what you're supposed to see, that fire flower isn't all that flowery.

A Fire Flower
I'm pretty sure that's ET, not a flower.
Indeed, consider the current picture of Mario, and compare him to his first appearance as Jumpman in Donkey Kong.  As Mario evolved, artists used their imaginations and skills to give Mario more detail.  His basic form is there, but heck, you might not even consider that he's wearing overalls.  Who can really say?  You must use your imagination to fill in the details and decide what Mario looks like, until we have better images of him.

Some games tried live action shots, particularly Adventure Games like The 7th Guest; others only used live actors in cutscenes, like many games on the Sega CD.  Now these are pretty much extinct, because graphics in games are becoming so good, CGI is just as good.

That is, we think so, until the next round of impressive graphics appears.

I used to think that MYST island was photorealistic.  I believed I was walking around a real island.  But then graphics got better, and even its sequel, Riven, completely destroyed the idea that MYST was ever anything more than a detailed cartoon.  You can look back at MYST now and wonder what the big deal was.

And then they remade it to be even more realistic, and even the remake looks a bit meh.
So as games become more realistic, the like between what is movie-like and what is book-like shifts.  What was once thought to be photorealistic is now most definitely not.  But that doesn't mean MYST takes the same amount of imagination to understand as Donkey Kong.

In fact, MYST takes hardly any imagination at all, in terms of graphics.  The bookshelf still obviously looks like a bookshelf, the sailing ship looks like a sailing ship, and no one in their right mind would question it.

Yet if you were unfamiliar with Donkey Kong, would you know what everything is?  Do you know what everything is, even though you supposedly already know?  Sure, you know about the barrels and hammer and gorilla and ladders, but what are the platforms you are walking on?  Those are more than just platforms.  Those are supposed to be steel girders and catwalks.  You're not climbing an abstract series of platforms; you're climbing a building under construction.  And that takes a ton of imagination.

Yet many modern games mix the two.  Take any RPG, for example.  The cutscenes are, of course, movie-like.  Depending on just how good the graphics are, the exploration might be movie-like as well.  But if the battle system is turn-based, menu-based, or in any other way not strictly action-oriented, then it's being abstracted out, and is book-like.  Even in the world of that RPG, battles aren't really turn-based, because sometimes impressive action sequences occur in the cutscenes.  So the game offers a place for your imagination to take over.

That is not to say that either type of game is bad; my favorite games cover every piece of the spectrum.  God of War is a 99 on a 100 point movie-like scale, and Dwarf Fortress is a 99 on the book-like scale.  Both games are awesome.

I do wonder, however, about how smooth the transitions are in games that are somewhere in the middle.  For some, it's no problem at all.  RPG players bounce back and forth every couple of minutes.

But I wonder if bouncing takes getting used to or if we can easily do it without experience.  I grew up playing book-likes, movie-likes, and mixes, so I never considered the difference.

But suppose someone who has never played a videogame before is being introduced to one.  Do you give them one extreme, the other, or something in the middle?  Perhaps what matters is how much the inductee likes to use his imagination.  Perhaps an avid book reader would like a book-like game, while an avid movie watcher wants a movie-like game.  To give them the opposite might turn them off from games.

Old guy playing Tetris clone
"Who keeps throwing these bricks down this well?  That's what I want to know."
Think about someone you know who doesn't play games.  Think about their personality and interests, and consider which kind of game they are more likely to take a liking to.  Introduce them to a game you think they might like based on this dynamic, and post the results in the comments.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Zugzwang: (German tsu-ktsvang, Chess) n. a position in which one player can move only with loss or severe disadvantage. - World English Dictionary

The Game

A standard deck of 52 Anglo-American playing cards, no jokers.

Be the first to discard all of your cards.

Shuffle, then deal 11 cards to each Player.
Put the remaining 8 cards into a separate pile, face-down. This is "the Duck."
Flip over the Duck's first card, and place it face up in a new pile, the Discard pile.
Begin play, starting with the Player to the dealer's left, rotating clockwise.

On a Player's turn, the Player must discard one card that is of higher value than the previous discard. Aces are wild (and the only card that can be discarded above a King). The Player who plays after an Ace can discard any card in their hand.

If a Player cannot discard, The Duck will discard its top card instead. Play resumes with the Player after the Player who did not discard. (The Duck has played "for" the Player who did not discard).

The game ends when one Player has discarded all of their cards. If The Duck discards all of its cards first, everyone loses!

The Metagame

Zugzwang is a game of continuous disadvantage: every card a Player discards that is to their opponents' disadvantage is also to their own disadvantage. Every card a Player discards to their own advantage is to their opponents' advantage. And sometimes, a card a Player discards to their own disadvantage is to their opponents' advantage. The game is a continual struggle to win against thinner and thinner odds.

What makes Zugzwang unique is that the personal objective of each Player can change as the game progresses. Each Player wants to win individually, but when the odds seem too far gone, the Player has a choice to make: should they help another Player win, becoming teammates against The Duck, or should they side with The Duck and force everyone to lose? Each Player makes this decision separately, and thoroughly changes the social dynamic of the game.

In Zugzwang, no rules are made against tabletalk. This means that Players can tell others what is in their hand, or lie about their hand, or actively agree to help one Player win against The Duck, or admit they want The Duck to win. Players can even lie about their objective, or keep silent.

Because of the changing personal Player objectives, Zugzwang is both competitive and cooperative. It is reminiscent of common competitive card games, as well as cooperative & traitorous you-versus-the-board board games such as Shadows Over Camelot.

Play the game with friends, and tell me how you like it!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Article: The Storytelling, and Story Making Medium

There are two main ways I come up with game ideas: story first, or mechanics first.

When I come up with a new, interesting mechanic, I think about what genre that mechanic will slide into most easily, and once I have that, the rest of the game, from story to levels, arises naturally.  Based on the mechanic, I might design a shooter, a platformer, or even a board game.

When I come up with a story first, I always make RPGs.

This is kind of an unfair statement, since my process for story is a little different than for mechanics.

When I design mechanics, I figure out which game genre it fits best with.  When I come up with stories, I figure out which medium overall it best fits into, from short story or novel to play, movie script, musical, song, poem, or game.

Once the story medium has been narrowed down to game, only then does RPG seem the most obvious choice, and rarely do other genres come to mind.

I think this is partly because RPGs are the most similar to other mediums.  They follow the hero's journey, and allow for lots of dialogue, backstory, and complexity without bogging down the game.  In fact, those things are typically expected by players of the genre.  What is bad in one genre works great in an RPG.

There is a reason traditional stories work best in the RPG format, and it mostly has to do with the separation between story and gameplay.  Story takes place in cutscenes, dialogue, scripted events, and artifacts (such as tomes which give backstory).  The gameplay itself involves exploration and battle, mostly.  Battle is no more than an action scene in a movie, and what matters is whether you win or not, not how you get there.

When I posted an article to Gamasutra about why Games Aren't a Storytelling Medium (Yet), I got a lot of comments and little bit of criticism of it.  One comment in particular mentioned that story in a game is not the same as story in any other medium.  The story of a game is the minor actions, or the gameplay.

Take Half-Life, for example.  It's an example of the finest in linear first-person shooters that have ever been made.  Story-wise, nothing changes.  That is, if we are only looking at the high story, the story that would matter in another medium.  Accident at facility, aliens invade, military comes in to stop it and kill scientists, Freeman saves the world.

But no two games of Half-Life are alike, because each set piece action sequence can be played an infinite number of ways.  Our silent protagonist's personality is defined by player action, not by story.  Gordon Freeman is a frightened scientist, untrained in gun combat, and unsure of his every move.  Or Gordon Freeman is cool under pressure, confident in his abilities, and is an all-around action movie hero.  He can be either of these things, depending on how the player chooses to play the game.

The traditional story happens around Gordon Freeman, and Gordon Freeman is You.

A Winner Is You

In the end, the story that matters in Half-Life is not about an alien invasion, and it's not a strictly linear story.  It's about how you, the player, construct the personality of the blank slate we arbitrarily call Gordon Freeman.  And in that way there are an infinite number of stories.  Maybe Gordon begins unsure of himself, but his confidence grows as he gets used to the action.  Maybe each new twist upsets him; maybe he takes it in stride.  Maybe he's afraid of the aliens, but not of the soldiers; maybe the opposite is true.

In this way, games aren't a storytelling medium--they're a story making medium.  The player creates the story him/herself, and the traditional story of the game is just the wrapper the developers made to allow you to experience new situations.

But not all games have blank slate heroes.  Some have very clearly defined protagonists, like RPGs, or God of War, or Metal Gear Solid.  You see the protagonist's personality in the cutscenes, and you are given little wiggle room to put your own personality on top of it, and hence, control the story.

Sure, in an RPG, when you enter battle, you get to decide the proper tactic you want to use, and you get to decide what sub-quests to take, and heck, in some games of many genres, you even get to decide which ending you want to see.

But in most of these games--pretty much any game with a clearly defined protagonist--the traditional story is front and center, and what the player chooses to do is of little relevance.  It no longer matters how the player wins a battle, only that the player wins the battle.

So when I come up with a story idea, I am by nature or habit coming up with a traditional story, and therefore an RPG is a natural form to follow.  Other forms work as well, but an RPG is the most obvious, and has me think least about how the game will function.

Some games blend traditional story with player agency well, balancing them in a way such that the player is being told a story and is making a story as s/he goes.

Take Silent Hill 2, for example.  The traditional story is heavy, and the protagonist appears to be clearly defined, but your style of play determines the final boss battle and ending.  You don't consciously select A or B; instead, the actions you take, how you react to a new monster, how you react to a new item, how you react to your health falling, how you react to other characters; all are taken into account behind the scenes, and then you are presented with an ending that best represents the protagonist you created over the course of the game.

Older games, before story was a big deal, were entirely about player agency, and the player created the story through gameplay, through chosen action.  The original Warcraft and Wacraft II were about the player's actions, because the story was barebones, and what mattered was how you defeated your enemy, not that you defeated your enemy.

As games as a medium grew, they tried to push in more traditional story into the games.  Warcraft III is far more about the story of the characters, which you have no control over.  Arthas will become evil because you played the game, not because you wanted him to become evil, and not because you made him evil through your gameplay decisions.  The story of Arthas is told to you through scripted events, and you're just along for the ride.

Yet they have nearly the same gameplay:  they're both RTS's, and Warcraft III is only advanced in an evolutionary way that one would expect, but they are still basically the same.

The difference between them is their emphasis on the player's created story versus the writers' traditional story.

In an inarticulate way, I've always held this vague notion of the difference between the two forms in games.  I used to be content with either style of story, and would gladly watch a cutscene that was twenty minutes long, or just as gladly play a "storyless" game like Combat for the Atari 2600.

But as I get older, I have started to become old and crotchety and want my games to allow me to control the story, and make me, the player, matter.  I tend to think "If I want a traditional story, I'll read a book."

A Choose Your Own Adventure Book
And sometimes games get all up in my books.
There are plenty of games that provide both kinds of story at once and give equal time to them both (and, in the aforementioned example, allow one to effect the other), and these have the best of both worlds.

But ultimately, as I get set in my ways, when I play a game I want to play it, not watch it, so I skip cutscenes, rush through dialogue, and just get on with the gameplay.

Maybe that is my fault, as I have said, or maybe story writers need to think more carefully about what the best medium is for the story they want to tell.  After all, I may be a game designer, but when I come up with a story idea, I don't shoehorn it into a game if I don't have to.  Maybe it makes a better book.

Sometimes the opposite problem arises, I think: the traditional story is an afterthought in the development, and anything will do, as long as there are a few cutscenes in there, because there "must" be a story these days.

If a traditional story is truly necessary (and I don't think it is, but that's beside the point), then the story needs to be something that either naturally arises as a consequence of the genre and mechanics that are being used, or the story must at least be designed in tandem with the mechanics, and more care must be taken to marry the two.

If the traditional story and gameplay don't flow together, it becomes jarring when one interrupts the other, and flow is broken.  I think that's the last thing a game developer wants to do.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rain delay

Big headache.  Might post something tomorrow, or might just wait until Friday.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Article: On the Oculus Rift, Ouya, and Google Glass

I grew up a 90's kid.  I owned an NES and a Sega Genesis, and a Tandy computer.  I also watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I was fascinated by the Holodeck.

Holodeck, with Einstein
Even 400 years in the future, they can't make a solid likeness of Einstein.
I knew the Holodeck was impossible (well, at the time it was, but surprisingly, we're making leaps and bounds towards it), so the next best thing was Virtual Reality.  I was obsessed with the concept, and I didn't give up the idea without a fight.

A friend had a Virtual Boy, and I enjoyed Mario Tennis on it, but I knew that was not what was promised to 90's kids for VR.  VR was an all encompassing color, photorealistic experience, and if you could walk instead of use a controller, that would be even better.

I loved ReBoot, The Matrix, and even a straight-to-video movie called Arcade which probably stunk worse than The Lawnmower Man 2 (which I also loved).

I got to try out VR for real when I went to Disney Quest, a five-storey building chock full of VR games at Disney World.  But even those were disappointments compared to my imagination.

I wrote stories about VR.  When a Nintendo On spoof came out on Youtube with a VR headset, I believed.

My poor prediction skills told me VR would come any day and would replace TV-bound consoles.  Instead we got the increased popularity of handhelds and smartphones, and only twenty years after I was introduced to the idea, Oculus is picking up the slack with their new VR headset, Oculus Rift.

But does the idea still hold sway on me as it did twenty years ago?  To be honest, I am far more interested in Google Glass.  I had thought Augmented Reality would be an evolution of VR, but it turns out AR is beating it to the punch.

My expectations (and this may prove a second time that my prediction skills are non-existent) are that Oculus Rift and Google Glass will both be fairly niche markets for their first generation.  Oculus' second headset (perhaps called Oculus Chasm) will be more mainstream, and might challenge the consoles, finally.  But Google will pour far more money and research into Google Glass, and Augmented Reality will be far more commonplace in its second generation.  And it will have competitors.

And with AR becoming bigger, Augmented Reality Games will come in, and will offer games for both casual and hardcore gamers (as I discussed in a previous article).

Oculus Rift can only appeal to hardcore gamers.  No one will buy it that doesn't already keep up with the latest Playstation or Xbox console.  Oculus may take a bite out of the console market, but Google will devastate mobile.

Perhaps the next Xbox and Playstation will come out with a headset peripheral like the Kinect does for the Xbox 360.  Then the Playstation 5 will be entirely VR, and the TV will be an appendix to the system.

The TV will only be used for Ouya-like consoles, for gamers who want the "classic" experience.

Put these three new gaming avenues together and there is a very different landscape before us.  Will Oculus, Ouya, and Google become the Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo of the next generation?  Or will the older companies compete?  I expect they will, but only if they copy what's coming down the pipe.

Sony seems like the type to take on Oculus, and Microsoft will battle with Google, leaving Nintendo with Ouya as nemesis. 

Although I am unsure about Nintendo's stance.  They have always been the kind to care far more about interfaces, what with coming out with the Wii controller first, so they may try to sneak into the AR or VR space.  In that case, I think Nintendo will be in over their heads.  They tried VR once before, and it was a failure.  Granted, they won't make the same mistakes as before, but I don't see them leading the way in sales as they did with the Wii.

Virtual Boy
I am sure Nintendo wants to bury every one of these next to the Atari ET cartridges.
Somehow, I think in all the chaos, Nintendo may go the way of Sega and Atari.  They are the last of the old standard, a relic now, and I'm always surprised they lasted this long.

But, who knows, they may pull something amazing out to redirect the world of games, just like they did last time.  The Wii U isn't it, though.  Maybe the Wii V will come out and make us forget Nintendo's missteps, just like we forgot about the Virtual Boy.

In the end, though, I regard Oculus Rift with curiosity, rather than excitement.  I should be excited, since I've waited 20 years for such a system, but it's been like waiting for Duke Nukem Forever.  All the hype and disappointment for so long makes it not worth it.

I think I'd rather just play a retro indie platformer on the Ouya.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Article: On Frustration and Difficulty

When I first played Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, I found it to be an easy game to play and learn the controls, but extremely difficult to beat or get 100% of the goals.  Yet I was never annoyed or angered or even frustrated by my failure.  At no point did any negative emotion ever enter my brain, no matter how many times I failed a goal.

Even though I discovered from experience that each Tony Hawk game following Pro Skater 2 slowly got worse and worse, I stuck with the series, because despite the gradual degradation of enjoyability, I still never felt frustrated by failure.  I stopped playing the Tony Hawk franchise only after the series got boring, and that is the worst sin it committed.

Many games I play today aren't boring at all; but they would be if they weren't so frustrating and anger-inducing.  But which is a worse problem for a game?  A marketer would tell you boring is worse, because if a game is awful at least it still sticks in your head.  If someone asks you what you thought of a game, and you say "It's boring, don't bother," that person is apt to forget about the game as quickly as you did.  If you have a story about how awful the game is or how much you hate it, that story will stick in the mind.

This basically follows the old adage that there is no such thing as bad press.

But of course, I don't care about marketing.  I care about player experience.  I would rather play a boring game than a game that makes me angry.  A boring game is simply a waste of time; a frustrating game brings up negative emotions that I do not want to have.

Yet, my opinion on frustration seems to be in the minority.  I've read articles and books and interviews of game developers saying that "a little frustration is perfectly fine."  The only way I can imagine that someone thinks so is either that they are a sadist, they have no empathy, or they erroneously equate frustration with difficulty.

In the cases of sadism or lack of empathy, I have no way of changing a person's mind.  But I did just give an example above of how frustration and difficulty are not the same concept.  And there are many more examples from the golden age of videogames, and even up into the 90's.

Super Mario Bros. is extremely fun to play, yet I find making it through the game without warping to still be a major challenge.  It is not frustrating; it is fun.

Figuring out the puzzles in Myst (and Riven even more so) to be some of the most mind-boggling and cryptic challenges I've ever come across, yet figuring them out is fun.  They are not frustrating at all.

World of Warcraft is extremely frustrating and anger-inducing.  Sitting through Metal Gear Solid 4's tedious cutscenes is frustrating.

Of course, I'm not simply slamming new games for frustration.  Old games had their fair share, and there are plenty of difficult games today that are not frustrating at all.

Left 4 Dead is a perfect example of a tough game done right:  you never get angry at the swarms of zombies, even after you've died for the thousandth time.

Indie games fare even better:  Dwarf Fortress is one of the most addicting games I've ever played, and I can't say I've ever been frustrated, no matter how often my Dwarves get frustrated with me.

Of course, you may disagree with my characterization of some of these games.  Perhaps to you, WoW isn't frustrating at all, but Left 4 Dead is infuriating.  My point here is not in defining what is frustrating, as that is subjective, but rather in pointing out the paraphrase from earlier:  many game developers see no problem with frustrating players.

I always aim to avoid that emotion when designing games.  Sure, it's impossible to please everyone, and I won't succeed every time, but I would think that at the very least, frustrating players should not be a top goal of games.

I've heard the rebuttal to this before:  "But frustration is necessary because you feel so much better when you win."

Yeah, sorry, I don't buy that.  Maybe to some people that's the case, but certainly not for me.  If I'm frustrated throughout a game, then finally beat it, there is no catharsis for me; I simply did not enjoy the game at all.

Again, this comes from the erroneous equation between frustration and difficulty.  The harder a game is, the better your feel when you win, because you triumphed over so much adversity.  Frustration is not the same thing.  Frustration is draining.  Challenge is exhilarating.

Do you like being frustrated?  Do you think a game must be frustrating to be tough?  Can you name your own games that are difficult, but extremely fun anyway and not at all frustrating?

If you can pick a few games that are difficult but fun, and a few that are difficult and frustrating, write them down in a list.  Figure out which ones you liked better, in terms of the in-the-moment gameplay, the thrill of winning, and which ones have a positive lasting impression.

If you can't name any games that are difficult but not frustrating, that's a problem.  Probably not your problem, but the industry's problem.

Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year's Resolution: 1080p

So what I'm thinking of doing for this year is to post more videos.  My plan is for one a week, although it may be slow going enough to be once every two weeks.  Either way, I'll still stay on a two-posts-a-week schedule, and half will still be text-based, as I've mostly done so far.

I may make articles into videos, or start a new feature.

I've also been volunteering on a project for the past few months, and now we've hit crunch time, which means that for the next month or two, posts may be light until I can relax again.  So the videos may be on a slower schedule for a bit.

This should be interesting.