Tuesday, May 29

Gryphon Mane Presents: Radii

A few days ago I started designing a simple game drawing inspirations from tic-tac-toe, checkers, Palette, and Twist It. Developed at my very own Gryphon Mane Studios, I'm calling the game Radii. Radii is still in development, to be sure though I've already passed through several concepts to arrive at the current favorite. The reason I post this is because I cannot develop further without some help, ideally, from you. Eventually I want to make Radii into an online Flash game, but for now it works quite well as a board game. Basically, I would love for you guys to test out the game and let me know what you think, while also looking for some specific things I'll point out in a bit.

But first I'll tell you what the game is. Radii is a two player game. The board conists of three interwoven circles populated by three pieces for each player. All six pieces are automatically in set places, called "cross-hatches," before the game begins. The pieces are not manipulated directly. Players take turns rotating individual rings either clock-wise or counter-clockwise. A ring can only rotate one space per turn. Every piece sitting on the rotated ring must be moved with it, regardless of piece ownership. The empty circles on the outside of each ring are spaces in the same way cross-hatches are. The goal of the game is to rotate the rings so that all three of your pieces are aligned ontop of a single ring. This of course means the pieces will be on other rings as well, but the main thing is that all three pieces are on a ring simultaneously. Their is a trick, however. To win the game, not only must all of a players' pieces be on one ring, but that ring must also be devoid of any of the opponent's pieces. A player must have all three of his or her pieces occupying a ring, while at the same time making sure that ring is free of any opponent pieces. Below are three pictures detailing the board setup and two turns.

Game Start

Turn One

Turn Two

Print this image to play Radii. Use pennies and dimes to differentiate players. You can also easily draw your own board by tracing something circular. . .thrice.

Alright, so now you know how to play the game. If you would like to help out, here are some things I'm looking for:
  • Is the current setup configuration fair for both players?
  • Does one player have an advantage over the other by moving first, or even second?
  • To win, does one piece have to be on the outside of a ring? Or can all three be on cross-hatches? Does it matter one way or the other?
  • What other setup configurations could or do work better? For example, all of one players pieces on the outside, and other players pieces on inside?
  • Is the game fun? Why or why not?
  • Is the game too complex? Is it possible to look ahead to future moves, predict your opponents' moves?
  • Is their any skill invloved? Can a player get better by playing more?
  • Is it possible for you to visualize the board and possible moves without looking at it?
Radii Facts:
-There are nine total cross-hatches.
-There are five total cross-hatches per ring.
-Each circle passes through the center of each other circle.
-There are six possible moves aduring any given turn.

Enjoy the game and let me know what you think-good, bad, ugly, etc. Please use the comments below so that hopefully we can get a discussion going.

Vanguard Development

Yesterday I came upon this 1up post summarizing recent happenings in the MMO world. The primary topic of discussion was Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and its development process at Sigil Games. 1up linked to two interviews at F13.net, an MMO-focused blog. The interviews are with an anonymous Sigil ex-employee and Brad McQuiad, CEO of Sigil games. Each interview casts very different lights on the development of Vanguard. One thing both agree on, though, is that development did not go smoothly. Apparently, development of Vanguard didn't kick in until a year before release, even though it was in development for four. The employee attributes this to the lead designers, including Mcquaid. Mcquaid himself attributes development difficulty to publisher funding and support. After reading both interviews, I think there is validity to each person's argument. I would highly recommend both interviews, they're enlightening. But the reason I wanted to bring this up is because, honestly, it was jarring. Its easy to get caught up in design and forget about development. Game development is the practice of game design. I love game design, but development is what causes all of those great ideas to come to fruition. Design is only half the battle to making a great game. Check out those interviews. The 1up story is really good also.

Thursday, May 24

Team Fortress 2 Class Overview

IGN has up a great summary of the Team Fortress 2 classes. I posted on Team Fortress 2 a couple of months ago, in regards to class based gameplay. You can read it here. IGN's article goes over each class individually, with commentary from both the Valve and IGN teams. Check it out. There is also a very humrous video available about The Heavy Class.

Wednesday, May 23

Forza Motorsport 2: Physics and Frame Rate

This post is about something which I've been fascinated with for a few months now, starting way back at GDC this spring. Forza Motorsport 2 is set for release next week, which makes now a perfect time to discuss one of its awesome design elements. To my knowledge, Forza Motorsport 2 is the only racing game to feature such an advanced phsyics engine. Literally everything about a car is calculated and effects other parts and the car's performance. This includes calculations of heat, pressure, and friction. The developer behind the game is a Turn 10, a division of Microsoft Games Studios. They determined that in order to calculate so much phsyics information at once, the physics engine would have to run at far more than just 60 frames per second (fps). In fact, the physics is refreshed at 360 frames per second. This is separate from the game's fps, however, which is set to a smooth 60.So why is it important to have the game's physics engine update 360 times in a single second? Dan Greenwalt, the director of Forza Motorsport 2, presented the game back at GDC and videos of the presentation are available at GameTrailers. He discusses the physics in the video titled: GDC 07 Developer Walkthrough Pt. 3. The race track in the presentation in the Florida Sebring. The track was once an airport strip and then converted into a race track. The track is apparently very bumpy because of this, which makes it the perfect showcase for Forza's phsyics system. I have transcribed some of the presentation for you below:

Dan Greenwalt Game Director
We run our framerate at 60 frames per second, which is very important. Its very smooth. And it looks very nice but that has no effect on physics. What has an effect on physics is the physics update rate. We run our physics update rate as fast as 360 frames per second. Theres a reason for that. If you update at 60 frames per second and your going a hundred miles an hour you might clear 10 feet in the time between the physics updated. So phsyics updated, ten feet later, physics updates again. In ten feet you can go over all sorts of bumps and all sorts of crap on the road. And that's gonna cause instability in your car. So if you do run your phsyics that slow, you have to run all these buffers on your car to keep it from driving right, frankly. It makes the car kind of drive slow and lethargic and when you run into walls they dont spin they just kind of "dong." For us, thats not how we wanted the physics to be, and then once we jumped over that bridge and were like, ok, its 360 frames per second for the phsyics, this track was the obvious choice to show it off because there are so many bumps to get it right you have to run your update rate that fast.
I'll be honest, I think this is awesome. Turn 10 is devoted. Because the physics are updating so much faster than the frame rate, the game can keep track of every single tweak affecting your car. The near constant physics update allows the game to calculate and affect your vehicle in the most realistic manner possible. Now thats pretty sweet.
How important do you think this phsyics to fps ratio is to the racing gameplay?

Sunday, May 20

Hell, It's About Time

I want to apologize for the lack of updates as of late. I've had finals these past two weeks and couldn't take time to post with all of my other obligations. But now, I'm free as a bird. I will be working a full time job all summer, so most posts will come at night.

Anyway, back to game design. Yay!

You may have noticed that Starcraft II was announced saturday. The originial Starcraft is my favorite RTS and I really couldn't be more excited for the sequel. Blizzard is approaching the design of Starcraft II cautiously, knowing full well the popularity of its prequel. Their goal is two-fold: retain the significance and uniqueness of Starcraft's play style while also improving upon and adding to the game's design. What this means specifically is that Blizzard is not making Warcraft III with a Starcraft skin. There are several primary differences between Blizzard's more recent RTS and their 1998 space-opus. As this GameSpot report points out, Warcraft III is focused on micro-managing big battles whereas Starcraft was more about economic build-up and mass-army control. Blizzard wants to bring this RTS design into Starcraft II. Additionally, they are apparently very focused on creating a counter system, where each unit has another unit, unit-type or ability they are specifically weak against. I think its fantastic that Blizzard isn't just making Warcraft IV in disguise. They are trying to create a genuine sequel that sticks to the greatness of the original Starcraft.However, they are bringing in several new features that have been developed since Starcraft. One in particular I would like to bring to your attention is a newfound revolution around elevation and unit movement. Blizzard has only shown a very small slice of the inevitable mass that is Starcraft II. But we can already see some common threads woven through out the game's design. The environment is now a much bigger factor in than it was in Starcraft. First, units are no long revealed when attacking from without fog of war. In the original Starcraft, enemy units would be shown, and therefore vulnerable, when attacking from a higher position. Now, units may attack from a height above their foe, and remain hidden while doing so, while also mainting advantages in both attack and defense. Almost every revealed unit thus far takes advantage of this adjustment.
I highly recommend checking out SonsOfTheStorm

The Colossus is a new Protoss unit that looks very similar to the alien ships in the newest War of the Worlds. The unit walks on four legs and shoots laser beams on enemies far below its bird's nest. Starcraft has multiple levels of terrain that are normally connected by ramps. Of course, there are also walls and platforms. The Colossus is easily able to walk over terrain dips and rises, thanks to its long legs. While this is only speculation, the unit may also be able to walk across smaller buildings, like bunkers or photon cannons. Anoter Protoss unit, the Stalker, has been given the blink ability seen with the warden form Warcraft III. The Stalker is a newer, dark templar version of the dragoon from the original Starcraft. Blink allows the Stalker to instantly teleport anywhere within its range of vision, including over walls and valleys. Last, the Reaper is a new Marine-light unit for the Terran. The unit wields dual-pistols and sports a jetpack. This allows it to hop over and down walls with ease, much like a grasshopper.
Ah....the Zerg Rush. Classic.

Of course there are and are bound to be many units that cannot simply jump across levels of terrain. This gives those that can a distinct advantage, at least in terms of mobility. But what these units have in movement skill they may lack in other areas, such as defense. Its interesting. Blizzard has presented themselves with something, elevation levels, and then created a solution, units that can overcome the elevation difference. Were these two facets designed to complement one another? Elevation is very important in Starcraft, and obviously is so in Starcraft II as well. I think that Blizzard wanted to create solutions for players to get across terrain easily. This seemingly small change is going to destroy so many strategies from the original game, while also opening many new ones. I like what Blizzard is doing with Starcraft II, what do you think?

Zerg Rush It
Do you think that Blizzard's focus on elevation is a mistake? Why or why not?
Do you think their should be a focus on micro-manegement as opposed to mass army control?

this public service announcement brought to you in part by free time.

Sunday, May 13

Designing To a System

Something I've pondered much lately is console-based game design. I believe whole heartedly that games should be designed for the specific console for which they're being developed. If you think about it, most of the better games on a console were designed for it specifically. This is part of the reason first-party games are in general better than third-party games, the teams design their games using the console's hardware as a blue print. Games are just better when they are built for the console itself. I feel that with multi-platform titles, developers often make the mistake of standardizing the game across all consoles. When really, each game, even ones that are multi-platform, should be designed according to each system's strengths. This is possibly more important now than ever before. We currently have three fairly different consoles and two very different handhelds, not to mention the PC. Each console has different strengths that a game should be designed to take advantage of.

Today, I start a sort of feature set that will periodically return to this blog. I call it "Designing To a System." And you say, "Don't you mean for?" No, but yes. Designing to a system is like writing a letter. Far away is someone you miss. So you pick out the perfect stationary, buy the best ballpoint pen (Pilot, for the record), and using your most articulate language, carefully craft an eloquent string of words that flawlessly describes your feelings for that person. In the same way, a game must be designed to a console. You want the game and its console to have a good relationship, so a game must be designed to work with the console as best as possible.Sometime within the next few day's I'm going to talk about the strengths of each console, and also post on a specific game I think is being designed immaculately for its system. Like a well-written letter, games are best designed to the system their for, as opposed to being designed like a stock-email.

Burnout 2-Time Trials

I'm a huge fan of Burnout 2: Point of Impact. I bought the game years ago for my Gamecube and haven't stopped playing since. While the series didn't become too popular until the release of Burnouts 3 and 4 (great games in their own right), Point of Impact is still a fantastic racing game, and, actually, my favorite racing game of all time. For those who don't know, the Burnout franchise is developed by Criterion. The first two games in the series were published by Activision, the latter two, and the upcoming Burnout 5, were/are being published by EA, who bought out Criterion a couple of years ago.
The Super Car is King.

Back to the Burnout 2. There is so much to like about this game, so may great things. But lately I've been playing a lot of the Time Trial mode. Time Trial is in almost every racing game you can find, from San Francisco Rush to Mario Kart. The mode challenges players with racing against the clock and subsequently themselves. No other opponent racers are present on the track, just the player. As a lap of the track is completed, a ghost car replay runs in real-time, beginning the same time that you cross the checkpoint line. Players then race against an ethereal version of themselves, which is an exact recording of that player's best lap. Burnout 2 keeps track of three time statistics while racing, Record Time, Best Time, and Current Time. Record Time is the fastest time on the memory card. Best is the best time of that time trial session. And current is the second-by-second timing of the current lap. What I've found in playing time trial mode is a hierchial series of challenges.

First, players must beat the record time. Then, players must top that time. This usually requires boosting almost constantly while also running a perfect lap, or making it to the finish without crashing. Whats interesting is that this also requires players to be boosting as they cross the finish, something not possible during the first lap of the session. Once players have bested their record time by running a perfect lap, the real challenge begins. What unfolds is a series of increasingly difficult time's to beat. Players must not only race a perfect lap, but they soon realize that they have to race better than ever before as well. This means boosting more often, drifting better, and not running into walls. It's pretty amazing, and funny, to watch your ghost- self racing right in front of you. You find yourself saying things like, "What the heck! How is he going so fast?" Or, "Man, this guys good." Only to realize its yourself you speak of. Gotta love the self-animosity. But really, it effectively challanges players. At leat I think, "Hey, I can do better than that."The point of all this is the that instead of racing unpredictable AI, or even other human opponents, players create their own challenge. Each time trial session becomes more and more difficult as players vie to beat their own best performance. It's really fun to continually race yourself, always knowing two things: A, your doing better than you did before, your skill has improved. Or B, your doing worse than you did before, try harder. Time Trial mode is unique to the racing genre. No other genre allows players to challenge their own ability. Take advantage of it, if you haven't. Time Trials may be more fun than you think.

Do you ever play time trial mode in any racing game?
-Have you noticed anything else that you like?
Could you see a sort of time trial mode being existant in another genre?
-How about RTS or FPS? How would a self-challenging system work for these genres?

Thursday, May 10

Skate 'Flickit Controls' HD

Skate Flickit Control System

Saturday, May 5

Character Progression Systems

You know, it's funny how video games change over time. In fact, it's great. We're very much so a developing art form and industry. Our ideas and perceptions of ourselves are constantly shifting, as our video games themselves. The gaming world moves at a swift pace. I often forget this fact, but gaming evolution and perceptions was brought to light today in 1up's review for Spider-Man 3. This is what editor Scott Sharkey had to say:
Spider-Man 3, however, is still an open-world game where there isn't a hell of a lot to do in that open world. It's an empty space to flip through on the way to the next cut-scene, brawl, or quick-time event. [. . .] You've got a very small number of collectable tokens on top of a couple of skyscrapers (they don't do anything, just in case you were expecting Crackdown here). It's not a bad-looking town, but it's lifeless and noninteractive.
You catch that? Spider-Man 3 is not like Crackdown. This tells us something. Sharkey believes that Crackdown has more rewarding and enjoyable character progression and exploration systems than Spider-Man 3. It's just more fun to jump around in Crackdown. And you know what? I have a feeling many other people feel the same way. But is Crackdown's system better? Or just different?
Crackdown. The world is your playground.

A summary, if you will. In Crackdown players can leap and scale buildings with super-human agility. The reward for doing so is finding little tokens that increase the character's agility skill. This allows the player to jump ever higher until more tokens are found and so on and so forth. Now in Spider-Man 3, players can also jump around the city, and swing and crawl. Tokens are also present atop buildings, but unlike Crackdown, they do not increase Spidey's agility, speed, or jump height. The tokens are more like milk caps that Spidey can add to his collection (does anyone remember Jump Start: 1st Grade. greatest game ever). Instead, Spider-Man gains experience points by fighting, and can use them to purchase upgrades in the above mentioned skills. Lets bring a third game, shall we? The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion features yet another character progression system. There are many skills in Oblivion, all of which are upgraded through natural usage of them. Stealth? Upgraded by sneaking up on enemies. Agility? Jump around alot and your skill will gradually build. Defense? Block enemy attacks to increase your ability.
This is your character after you've maxed out your skills. Oh! I'm refering to the corpse.

Are any one of these better than the other? Not necessarily, I don't think. However, what do you think compelled Mr. Sharkey to mention Crackdown in his review Spider-Man 3. Sharkey wanted to compare both games in order to point out the weakness of the latter. Crackdown makes exploration fun while at the same time serving a necessary purpose. By reaching the highest buildings they are able, players are rewarded with greater ability in the skill they've just exuded. Then, players are intrinsically, naturally challenged to reach the next highest buildings. This is the definition of fun. Challenege->Reward->Challenge.

Oblivion features a similarly rewarding character progression system. Player-characters practically become more skilled just by walking, and, in fact, do gain skill points by crouch-walking. Playing Oblivion is like getting living. Play the game, and your character naturally becomes better. It's even more fun once you figure out what exact behavior increases specific skill points, because then you can spend more time working to upgrade it.

Lastly, Spider-Man 3. Why is Spider-Man 3's version of character progression inferior to Crackdown's? As opposed to exploration, players are rewarded for combat in the form of experience points to buy skill upgrades. But doesn't that seem...counter-intuitive? Afterall, a big part of Spider-Man 3 (and the best part, from what I've read) is the exploration/platforming aspect. The combat, on the other hand, seems to pale in comparison. Why not reward players for swinging around New York City, instead of fighting thugs? The tokens themselves could work just like Crackdown. However, players have access to buildings of all heights from the get-go. Reaching the tokens is the challenge of Crackdown, whereas in Spider-Man the challenge is simply finding them. The system could alternatively work like Oblivion's. Spidey could naturally become more skilled simply by swinging and wall-crawling. But then the issue arises of how much reward of skill, how often.
I really like this screenshot. Crackdown sidescroller? Anyone? Anyone?

You know what, I think the system in place actually seems to work fine. The upgrades themselves are more like levels than skill points. And combat is an integral part of gameplay. In addition to story-line combat, players can also fight more frequently with side-missions, if they so please. The question isn't which game has the best character progression system, but which system works best for its game. I'll admit, though, I have a bias for Crackdown.

All images from Gamespy.

Which character progression system is your favorite?
Have you played Spider-Man 3? What do you think of other aspects of the game?

Wednesday, May 2

Lord of the Rings Online: Equal Rights?

Massively-Multiplayer-Game The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar was recently released. There are many facets to the game worth discussing, but a particular issue has arisen this week that I would like to take a look at from a game design perspective. You may have heard. Male-Male and Female-Female couples are unable to marry in Shadows, and neither are certain race pairings (regardles of sex), such as dwarfs and hobbits. There has been much player resistance to this social limitation. Unfortunately, the game's developer, Turbine, has buckled under the pressure and removed marriage from the game altogether.

Obviously, the main concern that players have with marriage restrictions is that of equal rights. Shadows designer, Nik Davidson, had the following explanation for the disallowance:
Very rarely will you see an elf and a human hook up, but it does happen; the door is open. Dwarves don't intermarry with hobbits; that door is shut ... Did two male hobbits ever hook up in the shire and have little hobbit civil unions? No. The door is shut.
Davidson goes on to further explain why. The Lord of the Rings novels were written this was because Tolkien himself was a "conservative catholic." But do supposedly legitimate explanations justify a lack in equal rights?Let us look at the various perspectives shall we? On one end, as Brenda Brathwaite points out, and editor Kris Graft writes, "videogames inherently branch away from their source content and should allow gamers to make their own decisions about relationships." MMO's are social games. A big part of their draw are the in-game relationships players form with one another. Specific restrictions on the development and freedom of those relationships is by definition discriminatory. Freedom of choice is a vital aspect to MMO's, especially when role-playing is so heavily encouraged. However, in real life, the zeitgeist of equal-rights is not polarized towards either end of the spectrum. Restrictions on marriage are being imposed across the United States, state by state. Even so, there are many opponents to these legal barrings. Is Lord of the Rings Online a virtual reflection of real life society? Or, as Davidson has stated, are these marriage allowances and restrictions just an emulation of the game's source material, and not a statement of modern political issues? It's impossible to say which was the actual reasoning. However, as game designers, we can speculate as to which is better, and the pros and cons of developing a game favoring either.The primary supportive reason for Shadows' marital restrictions is exactly what Davidson said. I think there is something to be said for remaining true to the license. A recent comic at Penny Arcade hits this issue in quite a timely fashion, albeit in a different context and perhaps slightly exaggerated. Regerdless, authenticity can certainly be an advantage. Designing a licensed game cannot be easy, developers must decide early and reevaluate often just how closely they are going to stick to the source. Their is likely a precarious balance in weighing these things. The final cheer for this side of the argument is that players are living in virtual world. This virtual world, Middle Earth, has certain restrictions or cultural expectations of its inhabitants. Turbine had imposed these cultural norms by techincal rule. Just as Middle Earth inhabitants in the books had to follow the rules, so do players living in the same world.

The flip side is that its a game. Developers have the right to take certain liberties in their interpretation of a license. Furthermore, developers must determine which is more important: staying true to the source, or making a great game regardless of licensing restrictions? In the end, the game is a game, in this case an MMO. And in MMOs, player freedom is priority, which, as it has been established in MMOs past, includes allowing players to marry whomever they wish. And going back to the virtual world theme in the previous paragraph, MMOs are like little continents. If in real life political strife can arise over gay-rights, then by golly in an MMO the same strife will eventually emerge. Without developer imposed regulations.

Massively Multiplay

this public service announcement brought to with the support of Rush: Snakes and Arrows