Category Archives: game development

Super Metroid and The Exclusion of Control Mastery

I love Super Metroid. It is very easily one of my favorite games. I haven’t played it through in a while, but I have easily played through it 50 or more times. There was a time when I would do it as a relaxation exercise; I can beat the game in an hour and a half. Or I could, at some point.

So I am definitely no slouch. I can also rack up a good amount of headshots in random FPS games. My reflexes are pretty good, and my control precision is still as good as it ever was. I think I killed almost every enemy in Bioshock Infinite with headshots.

I spent a lot of time working on Assassin’s Creed 2 exploring the issues of reaction time, control responsiveness, and input lag. I had an entire chart that described minimum speed of enemy attacks so that the player could recognize the attack, and have time to react to it. If you play AC2 on a TV with less than 90ms of display latency, and your reaction time to visual stimulus is roughly average (250ms is a good baseline, and the one I worked from), I guarantee that you will almost never fail to land a counter on an enemy. Because I designed it that way, knowing how people’s reactions work, and how fast people can react. I *wanted* players to be able to perform counters with ease. Mostly, anyway, some attacks were meant to be borderline, or require more attention.

But the point was, it was a research-driven approach which went out of its way to not only be inclusive, but attempt to address some of the common play scenarios that most players would see, and to be at least tolerable even on one of the dreadfully common HDTVs with really terrible display latency. Yet even with this approach, I hit edge cases I had to deal with. For instance, Pat Plourde, the Lead Designer, had slow thumbs. I made fun of him, but it was a very real problem that had to be addressed. Essentially, some of the combat actions had branching paths, where holding a button would have a different action versus just tapping it. These things are addressed by looking at how long the button is down, and if the button is down past a certain threshold, trigger the ‘hold’ behavior. The problematic threshold in this case was 0.2 seconds. Increasing it to 0.3 seconds solved it. He was unable to press and release the button reliably in 0.2 seconds, a thing which had never been a problem for me. And he’s not a bad gamer either. I can’t even come close to his Geometry Wars 2 scores (and god knows, I tried, that bastard).

The reason for all this is that there are certain things that are difficult for some players to do, which are not a problem at all for other players. In some cases, those things can lead to situations where difficult becomes impossible. And those particular control issues are not necessarily related to how skilled a given player is.

Now, back to Super Metroid. Over time, I have noticed that fans of Super Metroid have two distinct camps. One group loves Super Metroid for the exploration, sequence breaking, and power based map unlocks. The other group loves the super-fiddly controls of some sections of the game, and pride themselves on mastering it completely. I certainly fall into the former camp rather than the latter; to this day, wall jumping gives me some trouble here and there, and there’s a few upgrades I can’t reliably get to. But on the flip-side, I can still time a bomb-jump shortcut.

I am quite sure that the second group also loves all the stuff that the first group does. But I think that in general the reverse is not true.

Recently I discovered the existence of Super Metroid Eris, a fan rom-hack that effectively creates an entire sequel to the original game, all based on a hacked Super Metroid rom. As a technical feat, it is an amazing achievement. Unfortunately, the developers seem to be primarily part of group two. In the first few minutes I was presented with difficult control challenges and enemies that did significant damage such that I couldn’t take more than a handful of hits before I died. My enthusiasm for the game was crushed as easily as Samus. They seem to have focused on minute details of the controls in the original game and amplified them. Everything was an edge case jump, every action necessitated a very precise sequential set of controls.

It wasn’t enjoyable.

Flash forward and I am playing Guacamelee. I love it, but some of the control mastery challenges start getting really finicky. The combat is complex, and each challenge room takes me a few tries, but eventually I learn some new method of dealing with large amounts of enemies that I can add to my combat repertoire. Once learned, new encounters become manageable. Intense, but manageable.

I loved almost everything about the game, until I acquired the double jump. Because at that point, they started weaving level switch, and double-jump wall jumps together. And that’s the point where the game created a barrier I could not pass.

Up until that point, the majority of the control challenges involved coming up with a well timed sequence of inputs. This is a thing I can do. It takes more tries than I’d like, and sometimes the timing is really tight, but it’s okay because once you get it right, you are done and past it. I’ve even gone *backwards* through some of those sequences, which in at least one case I’m pretty sure wasn’t an expected feat.

After that point, however, there’s one sequence that involves wall jumping many times in a row, using double jump, and switching worlds halfway through each jump in order to phase in and out the walls needed for the wall jump. And then, at the very top, the pattern changes; you have to counter the muscle-memory that set in over the previous six or seven wall jump world switch combos, and switch worlds early, and then uppercut to land on a new platform.

Suddenly, I was 14 again, frustrated at my inability to wall jump out of that pit in Super Metroid. But this time, I’m not 14, and I don’t have the infinite patience required to try again for the twentieth or thirtieth time. And so, for now, I have to set the game aside.

The problem with the sequence is two fold; one, it’s a complex set of inputs. As we’ve established, I can handle that. Two, it is repetition that results in a muscle memory, which then must be counteracted at the very end in order to pass the challenge. If there hadn’t been that repetition, I have no doubt at all that I would have passed the challenge after a handful of tries, but instead I face a brick wall. After ten minutes of trying, my hands ached from the strain of trying and failing.

Muscle memory is an interesting beast, because it’s a hard thing to argue with. When it sets in, it allows for amazing things. I’d imagine anyone who has ever mastered a fighting game knows this. After a certain point, complex inputs are internalized, and there are no buttons anymore, just moves which are magically performed by your hands. But the problem is when there’s no context for that muscle memory, it can be very difficult to break a pattern, especially one based fully on repetition. Your brain doesn’t care how many times a pattern must repeat; it simply goes into autopilot and just *does it* until you decide to stop..

So breaking a repetitive pattern incurs reaction time while the signals transmit to your hands. Perhaps for some people, this reaction time is quick enough that they can break the repetitive action to take a new action. However, in my case it is not.

During the last CapyJam, Renaud and Qiqo made a very interesting game in which the controls were randomized; not only that, but executing a move required pressing three buttons simultaneously. It was an interesting experiment because of how thoroughly it relied on muscle memory to pass the level challenges. With every new game, you had to rediscover the controls, and then train yourself to associate a particular hand movement to represent duck, or jump. The more complex levels required stringing three different actions together in multiple sequential challenges. Where it broke down for most people was not learning to press a random three buttons simultaneously, but in figuring out how to remember three sets of muscle memory actions at once. It was extremely difficult, and communicated well the perils of relying on muscle memory for core gameplay.

In the case of Guacamelee, I am sure that the devs meant well, and that the game didn’t pose a particular hurdle to them, and that it was built with all attention to being the quality kind of game that they love, but it certainly raises the issue how control mastery requirements are inherently exclusionary.

If we go back to Super Metroid, almost all of the extremely difficult control challenges were related to finding optional upgrades. They were never part of the critical path, and even when training you to do something advanced, the game offered an alternate path to escape.

This is because even in 1994, Nintendo knew to avoid exclusionary game design. The reason I, and many others, learned to wall jump, was not because they forced us to tackle an extremely difficult control challenge; it was because we didn’t *have* to tackle the control challenge. But there was something up there, and we wanted to know what it was. It was the carrot on the stick.

When developing a game, it is especially easy to forget how long you have been playing it, and how much all those crazy controls and difficult challenges become internalized. It is natural to then go on to make a game that still poses a challenge, even with those skills. And in doing so, accidentally create a very steep difficulty curve for those players who don’t have the benefit of a year’s worth of play experience.

If that is what the game is about, then by all means. Push it as far as it will go. But if the game is meant to be enjoyable by even those without the particular controller abilities that come naturally to some, it is in your best interest to identify those potentially difficult areas, and keep them off the beaten path.

It is easy to assume that a gamer is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at games, but the truth actually varies drastically in between, and on various axes. Making sure game challenges are properly sorted along those axes allows for much more inclusive game design, and can avoid problematic game sections for players like myself, who have a particular quirk which makes very specific things overly difficult.

Challenge is good; just make sure it is in the right place, for the right reasons.

Free To Play and Game Design Corruption

I seem to sow a lot of confusion when I attempt to communicate what it is about Free To Play games I don’t like, and so I felt it was finally time to lay out my thoughts and fears, explain exactly what it is that bothers me, and detail the reasoning which informs my opinions.

There is an implicit contract between a gamer and a game designer, which is that in exchange for the gamer’s patronage, the game designer will do his or her best to make the game as good as possible. The designer will look at every system, every input, and do the very best to make them reflect the game they are trying to make as closely as possible. For some games, this means making sure that every moment is fun and engaging, for others, it means crafting the mechanics such that they evoke an emotion, or an impression. But what is common for all of them is the unambiguous honesty with which the designer approaches the business of designing the game. Call this ‘pure’ game design, if you will.

When a game is provided with no expectation (or method) of remuneration, you know with certainty that the design is pure, and the intentions conscientious. The designer wants to give an experience, or communicate a thought, and there are no other considerations to interfere with the design.

If a game is sold at an up front cost, you know that while the designer may be trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, their goal is still to provide the best experience they can, within the bounds of their abilities and limitations. We can still expect that game design to be ‘pure’. After all, what use would there be to design in any other way, after you already have the gamer’s dollar? The design may stray towards questionable psychological mechanics to keep a player playing, but there is still nothing between the player and the game which would betray the implicit contract.

In politics, an implicit contract between the politician and the public is not enough, so there are rules of conduct, ethics guidelines, and laws. Conflict of interest laws exist because it is not possible to know whether a particular action was one of corruption, or if it was an action that would have happened regardless of the conflict of interest.

If a politician receives a donation to a fund he runs, and eventually awards a contract to a business owned by the individual or business who made that donation, was it corruption? Was it coincidence? Was it actually the best choice? The problem is that we cannot know an individual’s intention, but when it comes to financial gain, it’s not hard to assume the worst. The people involved may swear it wasn’t corruption, but it is impossible to actually know as fact. So rules exist so that we do not have to struggle with understanding a person’s intentions, and we can attempt to curb corruption.

We can see that simply the expectation of corruption is enough to require a modification of behaviors, so that it can not only be avoided, but the accusations of corruption can be equally avoided.

If a game is Free To Play, and the available game purchases are not informed by game mechanics, and do not influence game mechanics, then you can assume that the design is pure. League of Legends is a good example of this. It is competitive, and F2P, but purchases do not affect the balance of the game. You can buy skins, and you can unlock new champions, but the mechanics do not change, and your purchases do not give you an edge. Being a competitive game, the design must be pure, or it couldn’t be so popular. (You can, apparently, speed up your XP acquisition rate, which allows you to buy more runes, but I have been informed that runes are trivially cheap and that this is not functionality which could give someone an edge).

If you can pay money in order to win at a Free To Play game, either as points in leaderboards, or in direct victory over an opponent, then the game design has implicitly been corrupted, and we need not visit it further. After all, you have enabled a system where a player who pays money will easily triumph over a player who does not. At the very least, this kind of action requires an unbalanced time investment from the non-paying player, which is not honest game design.

However, if a game is Free To Play, and the available game purchases alter the game mechanics, or the game experience, we are in the terrible position of suspecting corruption. Design decisions for the game could be a product of pure game design, or they could be made based on metrics that suggest slowing advancement by a perfect percentage would convert more users to paid players. Like a politician who awards a contract to a donor, we can never truly know if the result was deserved, coincidence, or corruption. A designer has absolutely no incentive to be honest about their motivations, and so we can never know if the game design was pure.

However, it is even more complex than that. We cannot know how much the knowledge that it was a F2P game influenced the designer, even if subconsciously. To go even deeper, I don’t believe that any designer worth the name would ever design a game ignoring what it is supposed to be. So now we are stuck in an unfortunate paradox, where I don’t believe it’s possible for a design of certain F2P games to be pure, despite best intentions, and that even given those best intentions, I cannot help but believe that any game designed with certain F2P methods in mind would have been a better game if it were not designed to be F2P.

I am trying to be fair. Were I in a position of designing a F2P game, I would do my best to design a good F2P game. I would keep my design as pure as possible, but it would still, in all likelihood, be corrupt. My goal with the mechanics, like it or not, would be to encourage the player to spend money as part of the gameplay, instead of just delivering an engaging experience.

One day I expect I will be faced with this problem, and I don’t look forward to it. Until that time, I will continue to make games as pure as possible, and when that time comes, I will be forced to make some very hard decisions. Above all, I believe in games as an art, and I have yet to see art created such that the experience changes with continued addition of money.

Of course, as I mentioned above, there are certain Free To Play mechanics which aren’t corrupt. If a player can identify exactly what he will get, and what value the purchase provides, then it is a much more pure mechanic. Unlocking new play styles, new levels, or anything that doesn’t directly affect the ability to progress in what you already have access to are all equally benign. The gamer can predict the value of what it is they can purchase.

The problem with a lot of F2P games, especially ones where you purchase a special game currency, is that the player cannot predict the balance curves of new purchases and forward progress. 1000 Gamecentz might seem like a lot, when it costs you 10 Gamecentz to build your first few Magic Foozles, but will it seem like a lot when your next few cost 200? If a gamer cannot predict the value he is getting out of his or her purchase, then it is inherently corrupt.

Beyond these issues, there are the questions that F2P games raise in my mind while I play. How can I know that I am not being manipulated? If I am playing the game, but it gets grindy, and there are purchases which will alleviate the grind, what were the reasons for the grind in the first place? Did the designer believe that the grind was the optimal path for the game to be engaging, or was the designer making conscious decisions based on conversion metrics?

I know that Free to Play is here to stay, so I can only hope that developers swing towards choosing pure design methods. But a lot of them won’t, consciously or not. As long as that is the case, I will never be able to shake the idea that when I dislike or grow tired of a game, that it is because of the Free To Play system; that the designer, freed from the need to coerce the player to pay more money, would have made a superior game.

Braid, Do I Love You or Hate You?

On one hand, you are a great game.  Amazing game mechanics, puzzles, and a mature and meaningful story and presentation that is as unique as the mechanics themselves.  Art, music, sound, writing, all are top notch.  A notch above, I might add, any game I’ve played made by any kind of business driven development house.

Sure, I could talk about how your difficulty curve is imperfect.  How I spent much time frustrated at a few puzzles for knowing what I needed to do, but not how to do it.  How I was forced, at one point, to hit up youtube for a solution (which, in the end, told me that I was doing exactly the right thing, just off by a tiny amount).  Of spending nearly an hour on one puzzle completely frustrated because I hadn’t yet discovered a mechanic that could’ve been introduced to me transparently through gameplay.

But that would be missing the point.

The point is you are so good, it makes me feel like an amateur.  Not the professional with nearly a decade of experience that I am.  You make me feel like everything I’ve done, everything I want to do, is in vain, because I will never make something as beautiful, or as full of depth and meaning.  I realize now that every idea I’ve ever had, every mechanic I’ve ever dreamed of including in a game, is nothing but evolutionary fluff compared to a true masterpiece.

Do I hate you?  Do I hate you for making me want to give up on all my dreams and ambitions?  To crawl under a rock and pretend that I never even tried, so as to minimize the trauma?

Do I love you?  Will you be the inspiration that leads me to create my own masterpiece?  Or at least, something I can be truly proud of and call my own?

I hope that it’s love, I fear that it’s hate.

The Pass Effect

So, I’ve been playing Mass Effect lately. Or more to the point, I’ve been hating Mass Effect lately. Don’t get me wrong, I want to like it. The dialogue is fantastic, and gives a level of maturity to Bioware games that’s been solely lacking.

Now, if only they could manage to make a good game. The more I play Mass Effect, the more angry I get at it. Why play if you are angry, you ask? Because hidden in there, beyond the horrible interface, poorly implemented action, and generic filler quests, is a good game. I think.

The soundtrack is amazing. The visuals (after ten seconds of loading, anyway) are top notch. Despite obvious frame rate issues. But the interface… Let’s just say, I can’t believe no one at Bioware sat down and said “You know, this inventory system sucks. A lot. Maybe we should fix it?” It’s painful to use. It’s slow to use. There’s no sorting options. Managing your equipment is a pain. And it doesn’t conform to any commonly used interface conventions. For instance, when I’m looking through upgrades for a weapon/armor, why can’t I hit the B button to cancel? Instead, I have to scroll all the way back to the top of the list (in an extremely slow fashion, as there is an arbitrary scrolling speed imposed by their mini-animation), and then reselect the upgrade I started with.

And that’s only one of the many oversights. For example, there’s a handy store on your ship. But you can’t compare any of the items in that store to any of your party members, because when you are on your ship, you are alone. So if you want to upgrade your sidekicks in between missions, you either write down all their stats on a sheet of paper (how retro!), or you spend all your time memorizing a set of stats, and checking it against the store.

Inventory management quickly becomes a chore that you have to stay on top of, or face the consequences. When you kill enemies, items magically end up in your inventory. So when you hit your equipment screen, you are helpfully confronted with a giant useless dialog showing you all the cool neat stuff you’ve recieved, with such helpful information as “Polonium” and “Phoenix” with an option to turn it in to omni-goo, which is a magical substance that hacks for you, and heals you, et cetera. Now, the catch is that if you don’t keep your inventory clean, you’ll hit a magical arbitrary limit where the game forces you to nuke everything you get at that screen, before you can figure out what any of it does.

And then there’s the action. It’s functional, but barely. The cover system is a weak and buggy copy of Gears of War, coupled with an attempt at strategy partially in line with Rainbow Six Vegas. The combat has little or no feedback with your normal weapons. Enemies can often one shot you (even on Easy mode, there’s still times where I’ll get owned by a shot from a powerful enemy, in one hit). Your party is effectively useless, spending most of their time standing out in the open and dying, or alternately, firing blindly in to a wall or crate. That’s when they are actually following you, and not bugged out, standing still, and only teleporting to you when you get out of range.

And then there’s the vehicle combat and controls, which are barely tolerable, and feel like the bare minimum. I’ve done Unreal Engine development before, and the vehicle combat in this game feels a hell of a lot like the default test vehicle that comes with the engine. It feels as if there was no extra work put in to the controls, or the camera, or the shooting.

Ultimately, the whole game just screams “Unfinished.” It’s like an Alpha that doesn’t crash. They didn’t bother taking any time to fix the little issues (Like getting stuck in walls, or your sidekicks not following you, or game balance), and instead just shipped it as it was.

I’m hard pressed to think of any RPG this buggy since the original Gothic. And that’s saying a lot, because at least Gothic tried to do new and interesting things.  Mass Effect is the same old Bioware formula, packaged in a visually appealing (once it loads) setting. The one claim to innovation was supposed to be its dialogue system, which ultimately turned out to be a glorified “Press any key to Continue” prompt, as multiple replays of conversation very distinctly shows you that often, no matter what option you pick, your character will deliver the exact same line in the exact same way. Innovation is convincing someone you are moving forward, when actually, you are moving backward. Apparently.

Those are just the major issues I have with the game. The minor issues are too numerous to count, starting from all planets/moons having the same gravity (including our moon), to sidekick quests being nothing more than looting a box on a specific planet. Especially disappointing given the story and detail of previous Bioware entries.

And yet, despite all of this, I power on. Because I want to like it. But it’s taking a lot of effort not to just take a pass on the game, and throw it on the pile with all the other “almost good” games that I’ll never finish.

That being said, I honestly can’t understand all the glowing reviews. It’s like I got a burn of an early alpha, while everyone else is playing the final game. Then again, maybe there’s some magical turning point in the game where it becomes amazing. Maybe that’s why I keep playing.

The Politics of Overtime

It never ceases to amaze me how an industry so built on overtime still can’t understand the politics of overtime.  They are very simple.  I’ll outline them.

  1. The best overtime is the overtime which is volunteered.
  2. Forced overtime burns goodwill at an extremely high rate.
  3. The instant forced overtime goes in to effect, everyone will immediately give only the bare minimum to the project.

And now for an explanation.

  1. An employee who volunteers overtime is an employee that believes in the project, or has personal investment.  These people want the project to succeed, and are willing to give of themselves to make it happen.  When employees volunteer overtime, it doesn’t burn any goodwill, and it actually builds goodwill, from the top down.  Which is great, because then everyone wins.  People are more productive, get more done, feel better about the project, and in general, are happier.
  2. As soon as you tell someone they don’t get an evening or weekend (or any multiple thereof) they’re going to get angry. They are going to bitch and complain, and the employees doing the real work are going to amplify this anger amongst themselves.  Offering direct and immediate compensation can mitigate this somewhat, but only in small quantities.  And this can be really dangerous to management, because if they compensate once, but they don’t on a following bit of forced overtime, they will actually burn even more goodwill the second time around than if they’d not even offered compensation in the first case.  Because now they expect something for nothing, when previously they brought something to the table.
  3. Someone who doesn’t want to work overtime won’t.  Sure, they may be in the office, but most will actively limit their productivity past a certain point as a coping mechanism.  If you tell someone on Wednesday that they have to work Saturday and Sunday, you can pretty much guarantee they won’t be working any extra hours before Saturday.  Whereas before with a simple push for completion, people might have given some extra time each weeknight, which ties back in to point 1.

Of course, none of these points ties in to basic limits of productive work time, or the reasons behind the need for crunch.  That’s a different topic for another time.

On a more personal note, I’ve realized that after my near seven years in the game industry, that all goodwill I have for a project pretty much evaporates as soon as there is forced overtime.  I just… I can’t do it.  It’s not in me to allow parts of my life to be taken for a simple job.

I’ve been down that road many times, and I know where it leads.