Tuesday, February 27


Aquaria is a pc game being currently in development at Bit Blot. The game is nominated for four awards at the International Games Festival, only a week away.

Aquaria has players taking control of an aquatic girl. She can swim, bounce off of walls, and sing. The game has a very nice graphical style and seems to have a good sense of flow too. The designers are emphasizing exploration and story over all else. They want the player to just swim around and enjoy the environment and discovering it. There are two trailers at Bit Blot's website showing off the game, check them out at the link below. This is pretty much all we know about Aquaria so far, but I'm excited nonetheless. I just wanted to bring it to your attention.

Go check it out:
Bit Blot
GameDev Interview
IGF Finalists

Monday, February 26

Crippling Gameplay-Its Uses

Today, I've asked myself a hypothetical question? Is it OK to cripple a character's abilities after they've already been established? What uses are there to crippling a player character?

Lets look at some examples where the player was crippled, like Metroid Prime, where the player is crippled after the opening sequence. Samus' first half-hour on the frigate served a number of purposes. It served as a tutorial, teaching the player how to use most of Samus' abilities and functions. In this way, the player already knows how to use Samus' moveset later in the game. It also "teased" the player by showing what Samus' will be able to do in the future. Need for Speed: Underground 2 also teased the player, allowing the player to handle one of the game's best cars in at the very start, before taking it away. The player then had something to strive for; allowing the player to test drive a top-tier car served as motivation.
Samus loses her suit
But, is it feasible to cripple a charater temporarily? Specifically, how about to create a certain mood. Let us assume the player character can run fast, jump etc. A few hours into the game, a dramtic event takes place, but the player is still in control of the character. What we are striving for is it elicit emotion. We want the player to feel sorrowful perhaps. Player's are restless, I wonder what the walk-to-jump ratio is in massively multiplayer games? In our game, lets say someone is being sacrificed at an alter at the end of a hallway. There are candles down the aisle of colums, a red carpet leads up a set of stairs to the alter. Slow, powerful music plays, probably violins are involved. How would the mood be effective if the player were running and jumping all over the place? Mayebe it would, whos to say? But, what if the character were handicapped? What if the player could only walk, that is all, just walk towards the sacrifice?
Then the mood would presumably be much more dramatic.

It is likely that the player even wants to save the one being sacrificed. So then we must ask, how will the player react to this sudden crippling? The answer is obvious, many would be aggrevated (effectively negating the intended drama), a few would appreciate what the designers are trying to achieve. So, is it feasible? Maybe, maybe not, the act of crippling a player is likely much more specific to game and scenario. So what if in our game, the player character has just been poisoned or severly injured, and limps and stumbles across the carpet, spitting up blood? Ah! Now the player has a rational explanation for the crippling of the character. And BAM, the mood is set.

Is it that simple? Personally, I think this specifically could work very well in achieving all purposes, and maybe help in advancing the story. Resident Evil 4 avioded this confliction entirely. Much of the game is built on mood, and relies on its effectiveness on the player. In RE4, Leon can walk or he can run at a fairly slow pace. Leon can only move so fast for a number of reasons: each area or room is only so big, but heavily detailed, and, the ganado are everywhere, forcing the player to carefully approach each situation. Therefore, the player has no need and no desire to move any faster. Everything about this works cyclically, the end result is that Leon's slow movement allows the mood to establish itself within the player. When the game becomes particularly moody or dramatic, the player has the option to walk slowly. I found myself walking through much of the game, I wanted the mood to have an emotional impact on my game experience. Players with options will sometimes swim against the intensions of the designers, and sometimes swim with it.

Setting the Stage
Is it ok to force this mood upon the player?
Or even outside of mood, is it alright to cripple the player to serve some gameplay purpose?
What are the potential negatives and positives to doing this?
Can you think of any other games where your characters abilities were handicapped?

Wednesday, February 21

Rails: The Train Runs Both Ways

Jerry Holkins knows games. Representing Tycho over at Penny-Arcade, Holkins' experience frequently proves him a rather knowledgable video game intellectual. Penny-Arcade has criticism in spades; name the game and they've got words to analyze. However, their criticism is usually founded, resulting in many top-class game and industry editorials. Today, Holkins discusses the Sonic series and its most recent entry, Sonic and the Secret Rings. The Secret Rings is an on-rails action/platformer, and being of a genre often "sneered" upon, was attended to by Mr. Holkins:
The term "On Rails" is typically used a pejorative, often produced with a sneer and accompanied by a snort of derision. This is all according to some Gamer Law whose origin isn't clear to me. I think it is because the human spirit yearns for freedom, and they feel as though the rails amount to a kind of "Man" who is "coming down" on "them." All games are on rails, and these rails are of varying thickness and ornamentation. Characters that never change. Environments that shunt players. Severely constrained interactivity. Punitive gameplay mechanics. All of these things are acceptable. But when you restrain certain classes of player movement, oh ho, then the game is on rails.
And may your statement ring true. I really can't say it any better then that, but I'll try anyway, if only for purposes of writing practice and refinement of the concept in my mind. "On-Rails," as Holkins points out, is usually defined as restriction of character movement. However, movement is not the only gameplay element of an on-rails nature, just the most obvious. The true defenition may be more like "the restriction of gameplay or its aspects." Now, we see On-rails as refering to a linear or constricted aspect of gameplay. Of course, theres nothing wrong with this in itself. But as Holkins says, in games like RPGs where story is critical, lack of dynamic characters can be as on-rails as it gets. Even games of the free-roam variety can harbor on-rails elements; how about a derivative combat system, or a repetitive mission structure?

What Holkins really wants us to see is this: Perhaps linear movement isn't the aspect of games we should be shunting. On-rails movement can work when it serves the purposes of a game, as it has in games like Killer 7. What we should be more critical of is the features of games that force us to play in a narrow, boring, or repetitious manner.

Get on the Train *woot! woot!*
Lets say you were tasked with creating a game where the player character is oriented along an single or sometimes branching path (on-rails)? What elements of gameplay would you focus on to keep the game enticing, dynamic, and fun?

Think about some of the games you've played. What aspects of the game do you feel were too constrictive? How did it hurt the game or hinder fun? How would that aspect be imrpoved upon to avoid this?

Source: Penny-Arcade

Tuesday, February 20

On Music

Two of the staff at Harmonix, COO Mike Dornbrook and producer Daniel Sussman, were recently interview by Gamasutra. Being the developers behind Guitar Hero, the two had much to say on their prize game, their acquisition by MTV, and of course, music. One particular response from Dornbrook was really quite relevatory of the theory behind their game, and perhaps more so, 21st century society.
How big do you think this kind of casual/hardcore market that you have tapped into [with Guitar Hero] really is? It seems to be pretty widely accessible - people are very into it, and are playing on traditional consoles?

MD: Honestly, I think that the market for what we are doing is a lot bigger than what we have seen so far. When I first talked to Harmonix staff nine years ago before I started here, and heard their vision for allowing the non-user to get thrill of musical performance - about how music is really a instinct, a basic instinct, something that is really deep down in our genes, going back to tribes who hundreds of thousands of years ago sat around fires made music in the evening - it's a deeply rooted part of humanity.

We have lost that in the last century, that music-making, we have become mostly music listeners because of reproduced music. We listen to CDs. We listen to the radio. But many fewer people than a century or two ago are actually making music.

And we've lost something, I think, in that. We're trying to get that back. I think that's a much, much bigger goal than simply making games. I mean the market is much, much bigger potentially than the games market is currently.
Sometimes, people have the most profound things to say.

Monday, February 19

He going for the Loss...

Letting the Player Lose
When's the last time you played a game where, no matter how hard you tried, you lost? This question is the basis for designer Ben Schneider's article recently featured on Gamasutra, entitled Losing For the Win: Defeat and Failure in Gaming. Schneider poses an argument that losing is games is good. Not making the game impossible to beat, but, designing a game so that the player has no control over winning a situation. He says this is good for two reasons: One, it can be used to drive a story forward. And two, it can make winning later on all that much more satisfying. Schneider makes an excellent argument, this article is well worth reading, and the concept even more worth pondering.
Schneider does not think this is easy to pull off however. He thinks incurring regret in players is the greatest potential pitfall of designing a game where the player loses. He makes one statement in particular which is really quite profound:
Books and movies have a huge advantage in not incurring regret in their audience. Their “players” have no agency; as much as they may dislike a twist in the plot, it’s not their fault. As game designers, we must reckon with regret. Our players have to do more than like the story; they have to accept each turn of events and roll with them, and never wonder if they should have gone back to get it right.
THIS is the beauty of video games. The power to involve people. Players are a part of the game; more then a participant, they are the core that all else revolves around. A cliche perhaps? "With great power comes great responsibility." As game designers, we are able to exert from complete to little control over a player's actions. Sometimes one way serves players better, other times the opposite-we must discern the benefits of each for individual situations. Players understand winning as a means to a game's completion. Schneider wants them to understand losing as serving this function as well: for games to be designed in such a way that losing both advances and enhances the story, and also has an effect upon the player.

Thinking of Loss
In what whays would losing in a game be better then winning?
What types of ways can a player lose (eg. automatic cutscene)?
Which do you prefer and why?

Sunday, February 18

Small Arms-Viral Achievements

Xbox 360 Achievements are hot these days. Everybody loves them. Small Arms, developed by Gastronaught Games, has achievements of its own. One of them, called "six degrees of small arms" is viral. It works like this. Four developers at Gastronaught started out with the achievement, every person they play automatically gains the achievement as well. Every person they play gets it too, and so on and so forth. I think this is a very cool system that I'm sure has been a ton of fun for players. Its also very different from the norm. Its a creative approach that offers further incentive and reward for online play. I wonder how many people have the achievement by now?
If you were to create a 360 game, what type of Achievements would you give? More broadly, what kinds of fun creative incentives tat fit your game can be offered to players? I just wanted to let you guys know, wanted to get you thinking about possibilites.


Player Fun Creation

Game Informer Online (again) has posted up a little article on all the fun two players can have with Crackdown for the 360. The article can be found here. The co-op feature (with complementary videos), talks about how two players can create they're own fun in Crackdown once the game has been beaten. Free-roam and Co-op were a match made in heaven, it seems, or at least Pacific City. Two players with powers that rival Kal-El, an open world, limitless possiblities. The developers at Realtime Worlds must have known this when creating Crackdown.

Look Ma! I can fly! (From IGN.com)

Its an interesting design method. Rather than set the player on a linear path to clear through, give them a smattering of toys to blow themselves up with. The same results were found in Mercenaries and even Animal Crossing DS, multiplayer free-roam leads to inventive gameplay.
Inventive Gameplay. Its really quite fascinating: Design a game in such a way that the players create their own fun. The trick, I suppose, is designing the game well. I haven't played Crackdown, I cannot testify to its quality, but clearly others see it as succesful in offering up inventive gameplay.

Games can teach us things. Thats the point of this blog, to look at other games analytically and take note of their pitfalls and fine points, to see what methods they use to achieve certain ends. Then, after storing these lessons in our bank of knowledge, we apply them to our own games. We want to look at games from multiple angles, from a player's perspective, from an architects, an artists. We don't want to look at games in any narrow defined manner, we want to see them as whole pieces that can be disected in many different ways. Games offer so much for us to find and discover, we just need to stop and look.

What does inventive gameplay offer for players? How does it effect them (what can they learn)?
What theories, tools, themes, or aspects are necessary to create successful inventive gameplay?
Why is inventive gameplay fun (the answer is more obvious then you might think)?

Please post any thoughts you have in comments. Also, if you have played Crackdown, tell us some cool minigames you've come up with.

Todd Howard-Shivering Isles Interview

Gameinformer Online has interviewed Elder Scrolls IV Executive Producer, Todd Howard, on Oblivion's expansion, Shivering Isles. One particulary interesting quip from Mr. Howard was this.

GI: Are there any particular monsters that you’re excited about?

Howard: I like the Grummites, because they seem to be more than monsters—they seem to inhabit this world. They have a little bit—as much as you can for guys who come out and attack you—it seems like they have some culture. They seem like they live there. They’re more believable in the environment, as opposed to Joe Creature who just pops up. Even though they’re all rooted in the environment, those, more than the others, feel like they live there, which always makes it feel a little more believable for me.

Why does he like Grummites? Because they're more integrated then other creatures. Integration is one of the most important aspects of a game, I believe. Integration of gameplay, story, environment, everything. I am currently working on an article about integration that I'll be posting up soon, look for it.

Read the whole article here

Saturday, February 10

Will Wright Popular Science Interview

D.I.C.E 2007 is currently taking place in Vegas, which for us means we get to see the big bosses come out and tell us about their games or share their opinions. Popular Science has intereviewed Will Wright recently, asking eight pages of questions. I know, I know, it seems daunting, but really, its quite educational. Plus, its Will Wright, how can you pass on that?

Some choice quotes:

Yeah, there's small to large in scale, but there's also the distant past to the distant future in time, so in some sense it's a map as much of space and scale but of time as well, but life is kind of like the portrait we're putting into this frame. We’re looking at life from the very small to the very large and from the distant past to the distant future.

Do you see Spore, or the rest of your games for that matter, as being educational?
I think in a deep way yeah – that's kind of why I do them. But not in a curriculum-based, 'I'm gong to teach you facts' kind of way. I think more in terms of deep lessons of things like problem-solving, or just creativity – creativity is a fundamental of education that's not really taught so much. But giving people tools… what it means to be human is to learn to use tools to basically expand your abilities. And I think computer games are in some sense a fundamental tool for our imagination. If we can let players create these elaborate worlds, there's a lot of thought, design thought, problem solving, expression that goes into what you're going to create. You know, I think of the world of hobbies, which isn't what it used to be. When I was a kid, you know, people that were into trains had a big train set and they spent a lot of time sculpting mountains and building villages, or they might have been into slot cars or dollhouses or whatever, but these hobbies involved skill, involved creativity, and at some point involved socialization. Finding other people and joining the model train club, comparing and contrasting our skills, our approaches. And I think a lot of computer gaming has kind of supplanted those activities, they have a lot of the aspects of hobbies. Especially the games that allow the player to be creative and to share that creativity and form a community around it. I think just in general, play is about problem-solving, about interacting with things in an unstructured way to get a sense of it and what the rules are.

But if you could predict exactly what would happen as a result of your actions, there would be no entertainment there. So it's exactly the fact that when I do something I want to stop and see what's going to happen, I have to actually watch it play out, as opposed to automatically know the future…
Check it out.
Popular Science-Will Wright Interview