Category Archives: games

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.

Dark Souls II Wish List

Dark Souls is the greatest game ever made as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve said many times in many venues that I will likely play it until the heat death of the universe. But with a sequel announced, I figured I should delve into the things which could be improved in Dark Souls II, because despite being my favorite game of all time, Dark Souls still has a few flaws which could really use addressing. Beyond that, I have some requests for features which should persist, and minor additions.

So first, the criticisms:

1. Multiplayer Success Rate
Everyone who has played Dark Souls for a serious amount of time is overly familiar with “Summoning Failed!” The multiplayer back end needs a fairly serious overhaul for the sequel. The mechanics can largely stay the same, but it would be nice if the system was more reliable. On that same note, rebalance the multiplayer servers so that you always have a pool of summons to choose from in a given area. It’s frustrating to need a summon for Capra demon and not have any. I get that sometimes other people won’t be playing in that area, but with thousands of people online at a time, it seems unlikely to me that there is ever an extended period where there are no summon signs at all.

2. Let Me Play With My Friends
We’ve been through two iterations of the Souls games now, it’s time to let me play with my friends. Everyone who plays eventually figures out a method of playing with specific people, only it involves jumping through hoops and a ridiculous amount of time investment. The rest of the mechanics can ultimately stay the same, but just have my friends’ summon signs always show up in my game. I can make it happen anyway, but it’s a fifteen minute damper on what should be an immediate and awesome gameplay experience. Keep blocking voice communication though, this doesn’t bother me at all.

3. Performance and Netcode
Must I say Blighttown? Even on the PC version, Blighttown’s performance suffers at times. I love Blighttown as much as I hate it, but I still wish I could run it at a nice and smooth framerate. Some of the boss fights can occasionally chug the framerate too, and that’s just not good for anyone. The netcode is pretty terrible both for PVP and Coop. It would be great to see a big improvement in that area.

4. Provide Clearer Statistics.
One of the metagames in Dark Souls is the extreme level of stat optimization. So please, let me see some numbers that are very clear about how much damage a weapon does relative to other weapons. It would also be nice to have a direct readout of how much weight you have left for the various encumbrance levels. I have to do so much math when optimizing my equipment weight. It’s tiring!

5. Make All Upgrade Paths Worthwhile
The upgrade system provided by Dark Souls was vastly better than Demon’s Souls, so keep it up. In Dark Souls II, I’d like to see all upgrade paths be worthwhile to pursue depending on your build. For instance, boss weapons and drops make for great play, but it would be worthwhile if there was a reason to stick with Divine or Magic/Enchanted paths. Did anyone ever use Raw for anything other than an achievement?

6. Learn From Your PC Mistakes
Make sure that the PC version properly supports PC features out of the box. Yes, the excellent PC community can fix your mistakes, but they shouldn’t have to. I am grateful for the contribution of people like the guy who made DSFix and the community which maintains it now, but I would be more grateful for a game that worked immediately on purchase.

7. Improve the AI
It would be great if in Dark Souls II, you couldn’t simply circle around every enemy and backstab them. I’m not asking for all enemies to be excruciatingly difficult, but it would be nice if it felt like I earned a chance via an enemy mistake, and less like I can simply move freely around them.

8. Tweak Covenants
Some of the covenants in Dark Souls are borderline non-functional, and it would be nice for their gameplay systems to be balanced such that every covenant is of more use. There shouldn’t be covenants that everyone avoids because the mechanic for levelling up in them is effectively broken. It would also be nice for every covenant to have perks at all levels. I’m still not sure what the benefit of higher levels in the Forest Covenant is.

Now, on to things which should be kept:

1. Keep the Bonfire System
This is probably one of the most interesting additions I’ve ever seen to a game, and I absolutely love the kind of gameplay it fosters. It strikes the perfect balance of allowing people to learn, minimizing frustration and difficulty, and negating the benefit of turtling through the game.

2. Keep the Seamless World
The continuity of the world in Dark Souls is one of the most impressive things I have seen in recent history, and it allows for a ridiculous amount of immersion. Whenever I take a moment to breathe and look at the scenery (PRAISE THE SUN!), it always amazes me that I can see other parts of the game, and to know that the game isn’t cheating in some fashion.

3. Continue to Embrace Sequence Breaks
The amount of sequence breaks in Dark Souls, and the fact that none of them break the game, including the spectacular one in Duke’s Archives where you can skip the first encounter with Seath, and the entire jail escape sequence at the same time. That the game carries on without breaking is amazing, and allows for so much player agency and wonder. It also kind of blows my mind how many bosses I can simply skip when I have a particular goal in mind. Taurus demon? Does anyone even fight him anymore?

4. Keep to Passive Storytelling
It is refreshing to play games where the story isn’t flung in your face at every turn. It’s also nice to have a story which is enigmatic and requires a lot of community effort to decipher. I think it’s very cool that the complete back story to the game is only now being hashed out by fans.

5. Don’t Break the Combat
The combat system is the best I have ever encountered in a game, and I largely feel there’s not a lot of mechanical improvement to be had. Everything works great, and the mechanics are flawless. Sure, it could use some extra variety in kill animations, but that’s minor and won’t affect the gameplay itself. It also might be worth exploring what would happen if riposte and backstabs didn’t make you invulnerable.

And finally, some general improvements which would make an already great game better:

1. Make the Environment Even More Important
Dark Souls allows for some brilliant use of the environment, from causing armored boars to fling themselves against a nearby fire, to dropping gates on enemies, or luring enemies near a height advantage for drop attacks. It would be great to see even more of this, perhaps even allowing the player some limited climbing abilities and playing even more with height variations in some levels. More traps that can be used for or against the player. It would even be nice to have combat involve the environment, with slamming enemies against walls, or the player being bashed against them, could allow for some interesting dynamic elements.

2. Allow Communities on PC
One of the biggest problems with the PC community for Dark Souls is the amount of hacking going on. It would be nice if you could set up specific communities, where all match making would pull primarily from that community, so you can control who you play with on a slightly higher level. At the very least, allow for some kind of blacklisting mechanic so that the community can police themselves against hackers.

3. More DLC!
I love Dark Souls and the DLC for it was fantastic. Ultimately I would love if there were regular large DLC updates to expand on the world and allow for even more gameplays and strategies over time. Frankly, I am of the opinion that we don’t even need a Dark Souls II; From Software could simply have released DLC forever and I would have been happy. I hope they make use of that route in the sequel.

4. Even More Variety
Sometimes Dark Souls feels like that joke picture of the Swiss Army Knife with one hundred functions, and that is what I love about it. More! More! More weapons, more armor, more flexibility within those groups. It would also be nice to have even more spells, and spell functionality. More flexibility with area of effect attacks would be nice, as would more utility spells.

5. Bring Back World Tendency
This one will be controversial, but I loved the world tendency system in Demon’s Souls. However, I felt that its biggest problem was being difficult and tedious to manipulate. I would love to see it return, but I would prefer for tendency to be largely driven by either developer controlled events, or tied to something cyclical, like day of the week or time of the year. It wouldn’t hurt if it could be influenced by mass player actions as well. Just make sure that it doesn’t rely on playing flawlessly or killing yourself repeatedly, okay?

That’s my Dark Souls II wishlist. I guess I should add: Can I please have it for Christmas? I’ve been a good boy.

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t market the game based on how difficult it is. It is not a difficult game, in the common sense of videogames, and marketing it that way just chases off potential fans. I know a lot of people who won’t even play games they consider hard who have put hundreds of hours into Dark Souls because they love it so much. There’s no reason you should be lying to people and telling them the game is something it is not.

Vote With Your Dollar: Dark Souls PC

I am absolutely thrilled to be playing Dark Souls on PC. For what it is, it’s amazing that I’m doing that, and that it runs so well.

But obviously there are issues with the visuals and PC settings. However, those have been mostly fixed by the community. And wow, what a fix it is.

I’ve been using this fix myself, and while I haven’t played enough to know that it won’t introduce issues, I’m fairly confident the’ll be solved at this rate. But while I appreciate the original author’s work in creating this fix, I would hope that rather than just donating money to him, people would take this time to tell From Software exactly how much we want official support for this kind of thing.

So this is what I am proposing for myself, and I hope other people follow.

If From Software provides an official graphics patch for Dark Souls PC, I will buy and gift a second copy of the game to someone who might not have purchased it otherwise, in the interest of telling From Software with my wallet how much I want support for this kind of thing on PC.

 

Maybe those of us who love PC gaming can make the combined effort to show From Software how much we would appreciate proper support for these kind of things, in such a fashion that they will sit up and listen.

I’m not about to start an online petition for this, but I do hope word gets around enough that From Software will take note.

Soapbox: Tiny Tower, Free to Play, and an Alternate Gaming History

So, before I get started, I want to say that I really did try to keep this blog positive. I have a tendency towards ranting (those of you who know me are now laughing at my understatement), but as I mean this blog to be a constructive set of observations on game design, I’ve avoided falling in that trap. Well, I recently started ‘playing’ Tiny Tower, and I can’t hold it in anymore.

I have an admission to make. I hate Free to Play (F2P) games. I can’t stand them, and I wish they didn’t exist. I avoid playing them. I avoid talking about them. And, ultimately, I wish no one played them at all.

Now first, let me be clear, I am speaking of games that follow the F2P pay model, not games which are just free as in ‘free beer’. If these games were free as in beer, there wouldn’t be a pay model attached, now would there?

And to be even more clear, I don’t actually hate the concept of F2P games. Games which are free to play up front, but for which you can pay to further explore the game and what it offers would actually not be a horrible system. This kind of a system would actually benefit gamers, because it would allow us to sample games, and pay for them as we saw fit, based on how much we felt they were worth. Great idea, really.

Only, F2P games haven’t gone that direction. At all. They are actually a whole new genre of game, one in which the design is corrupted in such a fashion that only by spending money would you have the experience we have come to expect from the games we play.

Take Tiny Tower for iOS. If you haven’t played it, on the surface, it seems like a Sims or Sim City style game where you build a tower, choose whether floors are stores or residential, and then populate the tower and give jobs to the people who live in it. Seems fine, right? I agree. Until I played it. I will now present to you, in the style of the now defunct “Games for Lunch” (With apologies to Kyle Orland), one hour of playing Tiny Tower over my lunch break.

12:00 I load up the App Store™, and search for Tiny Tower. I find it, and start the download. It’s only 15mb, which downloads over my 3g connection in about a minute.

12:01 I start the game, and am immediately presented with a tutorial. Great! I buzz through it, and learn how to build floors, stores, and apartments, as well as operate the elevator and assign Bitizens, as they are called, to jobs based on their abilities. The game speeds me through this by liberally rewarding me with Tower Bux, which I can use as a substitute for actually playing, I gather.

12:02 Aha! I now have control and can make decisions. I have a store in the process of being built that was started during the tutorial. The construction crew lets me know there’s an hour and a half left before it’s done being built. That seems excessive, but maybe they are employed by the City of Toronto. Either way, I have 5000 coins, 5 Tower Bux, apartments, and a frozen yogurt shop. One whole Bitizen has deigned to show up and live in my tower. Call me Mr. Slumlord.

12:03 All I can really do right now is ferry people to different floors using the elevator. I get bored of waiting for things to just happen, and spend some Tower Bux to fill my apartment with Bitizens.

12:04 I’m done examining my Bitizens’ hopes and dreams, and have still assigned them to jobs they don’t like. Suck it, pixel men.

12:05 A VIP shows up! I am told if I take him to a floor under construction, it will shave three whole hours off the construction time. Sounds good, kind of like that deal I am negotiating with a Nigerian Prince. I rocket him to the top of my tower, and am rewarded with a fully constructed Night Club. Now I have to reshuffle my Bitizens’ jobs.

12:06 I run out of things to do again, so I spend my few remaining Tower Bux on selling stock and restocking stores. I’m still 1000 coins short of building a new floor. I pop out of the game and hit up Facebook to check for new posts.

12:07 I return to the game, to be notified that I earned 55 coins while I was away. I do some quick math, and it’ll be twenty minutes before I can build a new floor.

12:08 While ferrying Bitizens around, I am asked to help find one. I correctly pick the right floor, and am rewarded with 1 Tower Bux. Yeah, it’s still Bux when there’s only one.

12:09 I complete another Where’s Waldo segment, but I’m tired of ferrying people around, so I explore the menus. There’s a fake Facebook, called “Bitbook” which has goofy postings from my Bitizens about their lives. “What is the alligator policy in this building?” R. Peters asks. I don’t know, honestly. I guess it’s an important question, 7 Bitizens like this.

12:09 I find a menu where I can exchange Tower Bux for coins, but the exchange rate doesn’t make economic sense, unless you are the Money Changer in Quest for Glory 2.

12:09 I click on a menu called “Get Bux” and am presented with the option of purchasing Tower Bux for real money. If I buy $0.99 worth, I get 10 Tower Bux. Which I can immediately change in to 3,000 coins. Which isn’t enough to put another floor on my tower. For $29.99, I can buy 1,000 Tower Bux, which I could exchange for 2,000,000 coins. Huh. Or I guess I could use those Tower Bux to build a complete tower in as much time as it takes me to tap on the screen 500 times.

12:09 I decline to spend real money, and instead, pop out of the game and play Powder.

12:16 My Klaskov worshiping fighter dies at the hands of a ghast. I pop back in to Tiny Tower, but there’s still nothing I can do except operate the elevator. I create a Quizar worshiping thief.

12:18 My thief dies after I read an unidentified scroll that turns out to be a Scroll of Fire. Oops. While trying to decide which god to worship next, Tiny Tower notifies me that my Night Club needs to be restocked. I follow the prompt, and can choose between stocking “Cover Charge” and “Cocktails.” I assume cocktails will be more popular. I pick that, and see that it will take ten minutes to restock. Slowest. Bartenders. Ever.

12:19 to 12:28 I lose three Belweir worshing mages on their first fights. I go back to Klaskov worshiping warriors and make it down to level 4 before dying to a lich. WTF, on level 4!?

12:28 I return to Tiny Tower, and deploy my stock. I do some ferrying, and decide that with my stocked stores, I should spend the Tower Bux I’ve earned finding Waldo. I sell off both my stores’ stock, and oh hey! I have enough to put a new floor on my building! I agonize for about twenty seconds before deciding to put in another set of residential apartments. They’ll take two hours to build. Maybe I’ll be visited by another VIP.

12:30 No VIPs.

12:32 No VIPs.

1:00 I’ve gotten to level 7 with a warrior only to be turned to stone by a cockatrice when my god abandoned me.

I think you can see the problem. Ultimately, you can’t really sit down and play Tiny Tower, because it is not a game, nor is it meant to be played. There’s no goals, and there’s no failure. Of course, there can’t be, because if I paid $30 to build my uber-tower but screwed something up and had my game end, I’d be so mad I’d probably flush my phone down a toilet.

Consider, if this game was made a few years ago, there would have been a speed slider. As it stands, you can’t choose to play Tiny Tower for a period of time unless you are willing to spend significant amounts of money. So to play it for free, you actually have to spend most of your time doing something else, because all the time scales are chosen so that they are optimally annoying. Would anyone ever really want to spend ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch operating an elevator and playing Where’s Waldo?

If I was invested in trying to actually build a tower, I would likely buy a bunch of Tower Bux so that I could actually do so without it taking… I’m not even sure. Weeks? Months? I’d be interested in knowing how long it takes to make a complete tower, without actually spending real money. And that money is significant for an iOS game. Given how many Tower Bux you spend just to play for an hour, 100 Tower Bux is obviously not enough to play for a sustained period of time, and that’s $5, which is basically the price of iOS games made with cutting edge technology and strong financial backing. $30? Forget it.

The other thing, of course, is that you only ever make one tower. It’s not like Sim City where you can experiment and try out crazy new strategies. If you want to replace a store with something else, you can delete the existing store, but you still have to wait hours for the new one to come in. This game’s business is wasting your time, and there’s no real room for any kind of creative input or strategy from the player.

To all of this, of course, you could say, “Well, if it ain’t your thang, don’t play it.” Which is fine, for now. But F2P is the new hotness in the games industry, with people throwing around new buzzwords (buzzphrases?) like “Games as a Service.” If you want to know what that means, allow me to give you a ride in my mythical magical alternate history time machine. It’ll be fun.

The year was 1991…

Civilization was released today, from Microprose. It is a world building game where you build up your city states in order to have the largest, most impressive country, out of all your friends. It uses a free BBS in order to let you compare your city states against those of your friends all over the world. You build cities, which then grow, and based on their population and resources, you earn coins which you can then spend on ever larger cities, and the ability to travel and create new cities. In order to progress, however, you need to first research new entries on the tech tree. 

Researching new technologies is just a matter of choosing which new technology to focus your scientists on. They then research the new technology over a matter of hours, or days, real time, depending on how deep you are in the tech tree. However, if you don’t want to wait that long, Microprose has a 1-800 number you can call, with a credit card, in order to purchase special Knowledge Bux. Once you receive them, you can then choose to instantly finish researching technologies, build new cities without waiting for income from existing cities, and in general, just show up your friends.

Be the first to have a globe-spanning state! That’s the only goal in the game. Unlike other games in which you can fail or be conquered by other states, in this game, you can never lose, because it’s all about fun and competing with your friends!

And millions of gamers cried out in unison, as if an entire history of quality games was suddenly extinguished. This is the future we may be facing if these F2P games continue to gain steam and mainstream acceptance.

Don’t believe me? Lets compare an iPhone game sold at $1, versus a F2P game with rough pricing like Tiny Tower. In general, it is accepted that of any free game, only 1-5% of your player base will ever choose to spend money on it. Of those, only a small percentage will ever spend a lot of money on it. The whales, as they are called. No, I did not make that up. That’s what F2P developers call you if you spend a lot of money on a F2P game.

So, lets say that you have 1,000 sales of a $1 game, versus 10,000 downloads of a F2P. Ten times the downloads for a free game seems extremely conservative for me, so we’ll go with that. The first game makes $1,000. Cut and dried. Now, let’s say 2.6% pay money for the F2P game. And lets say that they all spend $5, because lets be honest, the $1 option looks pointless, and the $30 option is ridiculous. The F2P game has just made $1,300. And that’s without counting whales.

But wait! The reality is that most players who make one purchase, will make multiple purchases. So now we’re at $2,000, say. But a popular ‘free’ game will also earn hundreds of thousands of downloads at the very least. And, of course, we still didn’t account for whales.

So in reality, why would a company interested in making money sell you a well designed game for $1, when they can sell you a maliciously designed game for free, and make more money?

Think about that. And then think about having to pay to accelerate your tech tree in Civ 6.

 

 

 

 

Neat Features: Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a retro beat-em-up in the style of old NES games.  It is a roughly by the numbers game with some great art done by Paul Robertson, of Pirate Baby’s Cabana Battle and Kings of Power 4 Billion%.  Both of which are absolutely worth watching.

One thing stood out in the game , and that’s the fact that everything collides with everything.  Which sounds ridiculous at first (and kind of is), but results in some great situations. You can pick up and throw any object, and sometimes you can just kick and punch them to move them around.  Eventually you also get a kind of super throw to use.  And then you realize that you can throw people as well (including co-op partners).

It has almost a Dead Rising ethic to it, though simplistic.  The idea that everything can be interacted with on some level.  So of course, you start throwing things around and seeing how long you can keep them in the air.  And that’s where things really go nuts.  Because things collide and bounce when they are in the air.  As well as doing damage to enemies that get hit, either by you or flying objects.

This gets especially awesome in co-op, where you throw a guy in the air and then start hitting some objects, and everything is flying through the air and hitting everything else and damaging everything, while your buddy stands on the other side of the screen and hits them back.  Eventually everything lands and the fun comes to an end, but often it’s enough to make you giggle with glee.

The true benefit, of course, is that this is a new kind of gameplay added to an old style game.  Something that couldn’t have been done with original technology back in the 80s.  I think more old style games should be revisited with a pass of what current technology has to offer.

The Three Hour Game

Something I’d like to see is a move to shorter games.  I find my time comes at a premium, so when I do encounter games that can be finished in an evening or two, it leaves me happy.  But it’s more than just the time requirement, it’s that when game is compressed to a short narrative, you can digest it as a whole, rather than being in the situation where after two weeks of play, the narrative references a character from the first few hours and you can’t remember why he’s important.

Of course, a lot of people don’t like games that are this short.  In fact, if I’m enjoying a game enough, I’ll often be disappointed if it comes to an end so quickly.  But my own disappointment is tempered by the fact that I enjoy not having to spend a month playing a single game in order to finish it.

However, gaming wasn’t always like this.  A lot of earlier games were built in ways which perpetuated short but repeated play sessions.  Either in the form of being difficult and limiting your ability to play (lives), or simply being so good that you were willing to replay them over and over.  My favorite example is Super Metroid, a game which I can play through, start to finish, in two hours or so.  It can be an entertaining evening to sit down and play a game from start to completion, and Super Metroid has enough room for improvement and optimization that it continues to be satisfying, even after many playthroughs.

Of course, these kinds of games weren’t heavy on narrative, and most games nowadays, short of pure sandbox games, push the narrative as their raison d’être.  However, this often results in a conflict over which is more important.  The sandbox is limited by the narrative, and then your gameplay is dictated by the same narrative.  The end result being that the narrative becomes stretched for the sake of gameplay, and the gameplay is artificially limited in service of the narrative.  Which, at the end of the day, serves neither.

I would like to see a move to shorter, more replayable games.  My ultimate game would be one which is built to be finished in a few hours, but all those development resources that would normally go in to making a game much longer would be used, instead, for branching narrative and random level generation.  You could even skip the branching narrative, and instead, just have the variety of gameplay which would let you experience the narrative with no chains on gameplay, so that each playthrough becomes rewarding simply because it plays out differently.

After all, the biggest thing which ruins playthroughs is being forced to do something that you’ve already done.  Even for a lot of the more open ended or simulation based games, it can be frustrating to have to go through a tutorial again, or deal with a part of the story that restricts your gameplay options.

Of course, the narrative issue is something else.  Not sure, yet, how we’d deal with seeing the same narrative over and over.  Branching seems the logical solution but perhaps we can step back and play with a more dynamic and procedural narrative by eschewing words in favor of more Sims-like communication.  But that will be a different post.

Design Crossover: Eve-Online as an Action RTS

Eve-Online has one of the deepest and most intricate combat systems I’ve ever seen.  It’s also heavily balanced for fleet combat, so that every ship type is not only effective but necessary.  From the smallest to the largest, everything has a role it can fill effectively.  Given that it’s an MMO, in general it’s one person per role, and one person per ship.  Which can be extremely chaotic at times.  Of course, Eve’s PVP is amongst the best PVP experiences I’ve ever had, and I go back to it when I can.  But for each great combat engagement, there can be literally hours of cat and mouse, hopping from system to system, gathering intel, and chasing people who don’t want to be found.  The ten minutes of frenetic action more than makes up for those hours spent preparing and gathering and finding a fight… but you will spend significantly more time doing tense – but boring – maneuvering.

Enter the Eve-Online Action RTS!  People who don’t like Eve always talk about how much fun it would be if they could actually pilot a ship directly.  Well, if you did that, you’d lose a lot of what makes Eve Eve.  But not if you kept the mechanics, and went the RTS route.  A lot of the fun is the military structure that Eve-Online forms as part of PVP.  But very few people ever get to be fleet commanders, and of those, only a few are good enough to actually win battles.  But if you’ve been a part of one of those fleets, you can probably see where this is going.

If you haven’t been a part of one of those, then there’s a small chance, being a sci-fi game fan, that you played Nexus: The Jupiter Incident.  It’s similar to what I’d see for an Eve-Online Action RTS.  If you haven’t played that… well, you should’ve, but that’s a topic for another time.

So the main idea would be to keep all the mechanics that make Eve what it is, but wrap it in a layer of RTS controls.  For the uninitiated, Eve is all about filling a fleet with ships which fill particular roles.  A simplified list is Electronic Warfare (the act of disrupting the enemy’s ability to attack), Support (remotely repairing shield/hull), Tackling (preventing enemies from warping away), Damage (duh), and Command.  Oddly enough, this last is rarely utilized in Eve Online, in favor of other roles, but it adds bonuses to all other ships.  A lot of ships are built assuming a particular role, but can be set up in different fashions to fill different roles.

Now, beyond specific roles, damage in Eve is set up in a peculiar fashion which doesn’t make sense until you view it in the face of large-scale warfare.  Small ships can’t do significant damage against large ships, and it’s hard for large ships to damage small ships.  This has the effect of requiring a very balanced set of ships for a lot of combat engagements.

So now with the background, how does Eve-Online, the Action RTS, work?

First, you pick and build your command ship.  It doesn’t have to be a Command Ship per se, just any ship you’d like to fly.  Big or small.  Then you’d have a budget for your fleet (or a fleet assigned by a campaign/mission).  You would then arrange your fleet in to particular groups, assign roles, and setup some basic AI controls for them to follow on their own.  Then you’d head out hunting.  Using the standard gate/system setup from Eve-Online, you’d spread out scouts, who could find the enemy fleet, while the enemy fleet tried to get the drop on you as well.  Missions could be set up so that you had to attack bases, defend bases, escort a ship, or simply destroy an enemy fleet.  Any of the standard tropes.

You would, for the most part, only control your ship, giving orders to individuals only when necessary.  If you choose to align, everyone aligns.  If you warp, they warp.  When combat starts, it would be structured effectively like actual Eve-Online combat.  You’d assign a primary and secondary target, you’d distribute “points” (what Eve pilots call it when a tackler prevents a ship from warping), focus your EWar on particular enemy targets.  And then just watch the fireworks until it’s done or you run.  There would be room for micro management if you really wanted, but for the actual experience, you should really just give very basic and open orders concerning particular enemy or friendly ships.

Ultimately, it would be the majority of the Eve-Online combat experience, without the overhead of the actual MMO, or the downtime associated with mining, making money, or trade.  You could even have multiplayer with multiple people controlling multiple fleets.  Different sized space areas could result in more or less cat and mouse.  Heck, you could even build co-op in to it, where you command different parts of a fleet.  It would draw a whole new audience to the Eve-Online system.  Hell, if this game were ever made, CCP could actually tie it in to the MMO in some fashion, as they are apparently doing with their tie-in FPS Dust 514.

Above and beyond the basic game, there’s still a lot of room to create a complex and engaging strategy game.  Most of the gameplay from Eve-Online could be brought in.  Scanning, hunting, even salvage and loot.  You could add a layer for AI pilots for particular ships, who gain experience, or who are better at some tasks.  Keeping them alive lets you grow your fleet to be more deadly.  You could even incorporate podding.

All in all, a game I’d love to play.

Thoughts on Audience

It’s funny how as a long time gamer, I sometimes take things for granted.  As a game designer, that’s probably not the best habit.

I was having a conversation about Darksiders with some coworkers over lunch the other day.  I’ve been enjoying the game, it being a seamless blend of Zelda, Metroid Prime, and God of War, despite the obvious cribs from those games.  One person though, having never played a Zelda or Metroid Prime game, wasn’t enjoying it at all.

She wasn’t enjoying it, because she was being exposed to the dungeon gameplay for the first time.  Since the Zelda and Metroid Prime games are based on a lot of backtracking and puzzle solving, I am well versed in the experience, having formed all the patterns necessary to recognize what is often required to solve a given environmental puzzle.

But since she hadn’t formed those patterns, lets break down what she was actually faced with.

1.  The player enters an area, and the path splits in multiple directions.

2.  The player picks a direction arbitrary.

3.  The player eventually comes to a dead end, either blocked by a locked door, or a puzzle which may require something from outside the room to complete.

Now, this is where things break down.  Coming to a dead end is not all that common in modern games.  In general, games are often built to continue funneling the player towards the goal, with as little issue as possible.  Or, in the case of a more open world game, they are often built to let you know exactly where the next step is.  If we’re talking environmental puzzles, most of the modern games like God of War give you everything you need to solve the puzzle in the room itself.

So now the player is stuck backtracking aimlessly, not knowing where to go, and not knowing what is needed to solve a puzzle.

The difference, of course, is that when I get to a place where I can’t progress, and recognize the obstacle, I know implicitly due to previous games, that elsewhere in the dungeon is the upgrade I need to deal with it.

Contrast this with not having that knowledge.  The ice barriers alone would frustrate me.  I would likely spend a chunk of time using all the moves I currently have against it, as the natural thing would be to assume there’s a way to break it in my currently available move set.

Modern games often take steps to make sure you don’t encounter a puzzle before you have the tools to solve it.  This is likely a good step forward for accessibility, but it does tie the hands of developers with respect to how much complexity you can put in to dungeon design.

It raises the question though, if new gamers don’t fare well with old dungeon design, then are most Nintendo gamers who enjoy modern Zelda/Metroid games people who’ve been playing them for 20 years exclusively?

Neat Features: Chuzzle

I am a pretty big and unabashed Popcap Games fan.  Not all of their stuff, mind you, but I’ve spent more money and wasted more time on their games than I’m willing to admit.   I’m playing Chuzzle again lately, since it’s been released for iPhone (and with all honestly, when I got my iPhone it was the first game I searched for on the app store).  One thing I’ve always loved about Chuzzle was Zen mode.

Zen mode allows you to simply play the game, forever, without any chance of losing.  You accrue points.  You can achieve trophies.  But with no risk of failure.  Conventional game design wisdom would argue that a game without an end condition like that wouldn’t be of any lasting value, but I’m quite sure I’ve spent more time playing Zen Chuzzle than I have any other mode.  Part of this is the sheer joy of playing the game.  It looks and sounds great, and it is simply entertaining just to pop chuzzles.

I think what we can take away from this is that with enough polish, you can shrug off a lot of the conventional weight of game design.

Notable Design: Darksiders

Darksiders is a fairly by-the-numbers 3rd person action game in the style of God of War / Devil May Cry.  However, as I play it, I’m seeing some nice subtle design tweaks that make it stand out against the games from which it obviously drew inspiration.

Particularly, the way the instant kills work.  To pull off an instant kill, you simply need to press B when in range of a stunned or vulnerable enemy.  Somewhat like God of War or Assassin’s Creed 2, but unlike God of War, there’s no quick time events involved. Where it differentiates itself is that you can interrupt a combo in progress to start an instant kill, and you can chain instant kills together as part of the combo system.  This leads to some great moments, like when you get mobbed by winged enemies who are easily killed.  You can actually jump once, and just keep aiming and hitting B to kill one after the other without ever touching the ground.

However, the cleverness doesn’t end there.  Your instant kill animations can actually damage or hurt nearby enemies if they get close to a swinging fist or weapon.  So instead of being locked in to an animation that only affects a particular enemy (as is the case in Assassin’s Creed 2), you can strategically choose particular enemies to kill so that you do damage to other nearby enemies as well.

But it gets better!  The game doesn’t control your motion for the entire length of the kill.  If your instant kill ends in the air, you can immediately chain it in to any downward or in-air attack that you have available to you.  A lot of other games of this type controls your motion from start to finish, limiting your ability to provide input before your character returns to the idle state.

These sets of rules all work together to great an instant kill system which is seamless with the rest of combat, useful for more than simply killing individual enemies, and allows for far more skill than some of the other games allow.