Thoughts On Choice

Choice has always been a finicky thing in games, and how developers have consistently used choice has trained gamers to react to it in a certain way.  That way is almost exclusively about weighing the costs of what you may get or lose.  We have, by and large, tied most choice in games to rewards, or lack thereof.

Bioshock, for instance, pretty much told you up front “If you play this way you’ll get a reward, and if you don’t, you won’t.” So you weren’t making a choice based on the story or your emotions, you were making it as a calculating gamer deciding which way was better.  Even if you thought you were making it emotionally, you likely weren’t, as you likely expected, even if subconsciously, to be rewarded for “picking right”.  And the game obliged; if you saved all the little sisters, you ultimately got a better reward for it in the end.

And that’s the conundrum facing developers.  How do you make a player choose based on story and emotion instead of that cold calculating center that has been cultivated all these years?  We’ve been so conditioned to believe there is a good and bad ending, and good and bad solution, that it’s hard to imagine a situation where this won’t factor in.  We weigh every split in a path, and each door against the other, worried that we might miss out on some little treat hidden somewhere.

Enter Mass Effect 2.  It is a sequel to a game where you made choices, and it will have a sequel where your choices are realized.  I saw the consequences of my decisions in the first game realized in Mass Effect 2.  And I knew beyond a doubt that my choices in ME2 would be realized in ME3.  But they offered no treats; I knew that whatever I decided would not be reflected in this game, and because of that, it shut down my gamer brain.  I was no longer searching for the best outcome.  I was no longer worried about missing out on something important.

This game made me do what no other game has:  I made decisions based on my feelings.  I was Shepard.  For the first time in 25+ years of playing video games, my decisions were based entirely on the raw emotional impact of the situation.  I couldn’t game the system.  I couldn’t know what would happen based on my decisions, except to evaluate it as a character in that universe.  All I knew was that my decisions will be important, and that, for once, I cared about the outcome, rather than the reward.

I’m sorry Mordin.  I cannot condemn your actions concerning the Genophage, but neither can I assuage your guilt.  Your decision was a hard one, and while I understand it, I cannot condone it.

RIP Legion.  I know we will meet again, but I still wish I’d chosen better.

Notable Design: Bejeweled Blitz

Bejeweled has been around a long time.  Closing in on ten years, I expect.  And the formula has changed very little in that time.  The match three style of puzzle game that it spawned is pretty much everywhere nowadays as well. Not many people have tried to innovate on that formula (though there are some notable exceptions).  So boy was I surprised when I decided on a lark to fire up Blitz on my iPhone copy of Bejeweled 2.

At first it’s the same old thing, only with a twist:  You only have 60 seconds to play.  A neat little gimmick, and perfect for the kind of on the go game that Blitz really is.  Or alternately as a light time waster on Facebook, for people who want to burn a few minutes here and there without getting drawn in to a half hour long game of Bejeweled Classic.  But lurking beneath that surface are some small but important changes that radically change the way you play the game.

The major change is that you can now swap gems while the gems are still falling/moving.  At first I wasn’t sure this was any different, but then I went and compared and sure enough.  You can’t move a gem until everything has settled in classic modes.  Being able to swap gems while things are moving is absolutely important for the flow required to get a high score in Blitz.

Two other changes have to do with that scoring.  The first is that the game gives you a bonus based on how fast you match gems.  Matching gems without any pauses increases the bonus, and that bonus is added to the points from every match you make.  The second is that by destroying many gems in a single move (specifically twelve), you get a special gem which is a combo multiplier.  Destroy that gem, and every match you make has the points multiplied.  Each successive multiplier increases up to a max of 6x.

But it’s being able to swap gems while other gems are still moving that really seals the deal on this game.  It leads to a fluidity which is unmatched by vanilla Bejeweled, and completely rejuvenates the experience, making it more addicting than ever.  And that’s before we even talk about the fantastic social integration, which plots your weekly top scores against those of your friends, counts how often you get certain tiers of scores, and then finally, ranks you in a list against those same friends.

Ultimately, quite a staggering improvement to an already great formula.  If you haven’t tried it, you probably should.

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.

Left 4 (Almost) Dead

So, Left 4 Dead is pretty cool.  It is, for sure, the best zombie survivor game I’ve ever played.  And I certainly enjoy it in co-op.  But I can’t help but feel a little let down, because honestly, there are so many little things they’ve done which either ruin the experience, or at the least, pull you out of the game.  

First though, things I like.  The pacing of the game is, for the most part, fantastic.  It doesn’t suffer turtlers, and it doesn’t mind killing people who rush headlong in to the fray.  Except… death doesn’t really mean death really in L4D.  Which is a good thing.  The system is ridiculously forgiving and allows for many frantic situations where you are trying to save someone when everything is going to shit around you.  I don’t know how many times we’ve only just made it in to the next safe house.  (It’s worth noting that so far I’ve only played on Advanced mode, based on input from friends.  And frankly, on advanced sometimes it feels a little too easy.)

The knockdown mechanic, instead of death, is a fantastic method of keeping the player in the game.  And there’s nothing more awesome than being knocked down and being able to continue blowing zombie heads in to paste.  I’ve had moments where I was knocked down, but I still managed to save people nearby from special zombies.

They also do a lot of things to help create tension.  You can’t just use a healthpack.  You have to apply a health pack, and it takes time.  And it can be interrupted.  You almost never have enough ammo to reach the next ammo pile.  There are always more zombies.  Using a flashlight draws so much attention that it’s often better to skip it if you aren’t in pitch black.  

The game is good at mixing things up.  Things rarely happen exactly the same, and you can’t really prepare too much for what will happen, or expect things to go the same way twice.  Which is really great when you are playing on a high difficulty, as it keeps the game fresh. 

Which is sorely needed, because it is a very limited and very repetitive game.  Not to say it’s not still fun… but after you’ve played for a half hour, you’ve seen everything.  There’s the odd new event, and the scenery changes, but really, after a half hour, you can safely say you’ve experienced the game.  I’ve put five hours in it, and seen two of the campaigns through to the end, and I feel like if I stopped playing today, I wouldn’t miss much more. 

The things I don’t like about the game, however, are things that I hope are either tweaked through modding, if possible, or added in later patches.  For one, there needs to be a game mode which turns off music for all players.  Maybe not all the music, but certainly the event music, which lets you know really early what’s about to happen, so that the game never really catches you off guard.  Sure, it happens once in a while… but that becomes really rare once you recognize what each piece of music means.  

Second, there needs to be a mode which turns off monster outlines.  And you know, maybe even player outlines if they are within your line of sight.  Sometimes it just feels so gamey with these bright outlines letting you know exactly what’s going on.  The game supports voice, so why not use it?  I want to play with friends and I want to have to communicate with them, and understand what’s going on.  But the outlines are just a method of handholding which is all too common in games nowadays.

Third, there needs to be a co-op versus mode, where if you pick survivor, you are always a survivor, and it works the same as normal co-op, completely transparent.  It doesn’t let you know if the other zombies are controlled by players or not.  And then random people can jump in, control infected, and surprise you.  But it’s hard to be surprised when you know there’s a player controlling the enemy.

Oh, and one thing, which I think is a bug fix as much as anything else.  I want to be able to see the outlines from everyone else’s flashlight.  That would be ridiculously more immersive and nothing would be more awesome than jumping at your own shadow in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. 

I enjoy the game, and I hope it gets some tweaks, because it has potential to be way better than it actually is.  However, it will suffice as a pretty damn fun version of a zombie apocalypse, even if not a very real one.

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.