Friday, October 12

Puzzles, Learning, Shifting Gameplay Dynamics, and Design Limitations

Do you like Half-Life 2: Portal? Of course you do; you'd be crazy not to. The team at Armor Games loved it so much they created a flash version, for all of you who don't have computers good enough to run the real deal. Obviously the flash game was created as a port of sorts of the first-person-shooter. Even so, Portal: The Flash Version stands on its own as a fantastic game. You should definitely play it.

Another awesome flash puzzle game is Launchball. Launchball almost has an edutainment feel, it teaches players about physics and power sources and all sorts of cool stuff. The goal is to get a ball from its launch point to the goal in a series of levels. Players must use a specifc palette of blocks to achieve this goal. The blocks come in the form of springs, wind turbines, batteries, and any number of other forms. Whats cool is that all the blocks interact in realistic ways, some having to due with force, others with power. The game is seriously fun.

Both of these games are fun, worthwhile investments of one's time. What makes them so fun, like all good puzzle games, is that genuine, powerful feeling of accomplishment you receive as a player as you work your way through the levels. Good puzzle games are, at their core, about learning. And learning is fun. Portal gives you a basic explanation of the portal gun's functions. Launchball gives you basic explanations of each block type. Its up to the player to figure out everything else. I will always argue that experimental learning is the best type of learning. From experimental learning is derived the greatest sense of satisfaction. In Portal players learn the properties of momentum and how concepts like right and up have to be percieved in a completely new way. In Launchball players learn how all the block types are interconnected, how they effect one another; then they must apply this knowledge to judge the placement of each block.

This is the beauty of these games. The process of learning. The games are fun for those "aha!" moments, when you figure out exactly how to use your knoweldge, and you think, "I'm a Friggen' Genius!" And you are. Good puzzle games make geniuses out of all of us. And thats an amazing feeling.

Before I let you while the hours away playing awesomeness, there one more thing I want to say about each game. Critiques, if you will.

Keep in mind I am discussing the flash version of Portal throughout this article, not Half-Life 2: Portal. As the levels progress in Portal (I'm on level 28, currently), a new gameplay dimension is introduced, requiring another set of skills on part of the player aside from critical thinking and problem solving. Later levels of Portal require timing and dexterity. This gameplay addition is interesting for a couple reasons. One, by the time you get to these speed required levels, you have mastered everything else the game has to offer. If mapped out, the game difficulty would look something like a snake curve: there are peaks of difficulty, then dips of simplicity. These valleys in difficulty result from players having already learned the concepts needed applying to the levels. Eventually, the game has taught players, or rather, players have taught themselves, everything they need to know about velocity and gravity and portal jumping. When the levels requiring problem solving alone reach their peak in difficulty, Portal introduces another dimension of gameplay, dexterity.

This design decision makes sense. The game has nothing new to offer, nothing new with wich to challenge the player. So, when critical thinking has already been mastered, the next obvious design choice is dexterity and timing. Players must now time their portal jumps to coincide with the flow of electrical fields and react quickly enough to avoid spiked walls. These physical challenges become more nad more difficult as the levels progress. My issue with this gameplay addition is that, once it hits, we're playing a completely different game. The challenge now is not to figure out how to solve the level's puzzles, you've already got that down; the new challenge is to portal jump quickly enough and at the right time, and to make sure you land on platforms correctly. What was once a game of learning mechanics and using them to solve each puzzle, is now a game that requires players to pass through the hole at the right time, and to jump and run the right distance quickly enough. You no longer have fun figuring out how to solve a puzzle. Now, you may or may not have fun trying to time a jump correctly. Regardless, the game really isn't the same anymore. I feel like this change completely alters the gameplay so much, that its really not even the same game anymore. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Or is it neither? The game could have potentially thrown more criticial thinking problems at the player and then finished. But what the game did instead is to offer the palyer a new challenge. Weather or not you like this new face of Portal is, perhaps, a personal thing.

Launchball's gameplay does not change throughout the game, like Portal does. But Launchball has its own entirely different issues. The problem is that each block has a specific function, a very specific function, and usually a single function. Not only that, but the function is explicitly explained to players. Furthermore, the level layout sometimes lends itself to fairly obvious solutions. If there's a gap inbetween blocks you pretty much know where to put your spare blocks. Though the blocks are all interconnected, each only functions in a specific way, so if you have a wind generator you know you need to blow a wind turbine on it to work. Essentially,what makes the game so unique and fun, also limits its challenge. I think the game is awesome for its educational elements, and for its experimental learning. But sometimes the learning is hampered by the blocks functioning in such obvious ways. These games are awesome, but as a blog about game design, we want to look at how the games function, why certain things work, and why others don't. And then we need to learn from playing these games, learn what makes them successful, or otherwise, and apply them to our games.

But don't let me get you down. I've had so much fun, so much fun playing these games the last few days. I have no doubts that you will also. Open up some tabs and tear away at Portal and Launchball.

Source: Kotaku

Thursday, October 4 Launched

The CMP Group has launched the official Indie Games Development website. These are the same peeople behind, the Independant Games Festival, and Game Developer Magazine, so we know the site is in good hands. The site already has a good start so be sure to check it out.

Via Kotaku

Burnout Paradise+Remix=Awesome

Earlier today I was watching this trailer for Burnout Paradise and I immediately noticed something very familiar. The music playing is the same as the intro music from Burnout 2: Point of Impact.

Awesome, no?
The act in itself of booting up Burnout 2 is fun. Because as soon as the Criterian logo hits, BAM, the music starts up and your in the game. Besides the fact that Burnout 2 is amazing in most every respect, that opening music does more to get me hyped than any other game I've played. (Its also possible that this song is featured in Burnout 3 or 4 or one of the other versions, but if so I havent played them enough to hear it.) I get a similar sensation when playing Metroid Prime or Ocarina of Time, the respective music and video introductions set a fantastic mood before the games even begin. Pretty sweet. Are there any games that have a similar effect for you?

Tuesday, October 2

Echochrome: Principle-Based Design

Echochrome is about playing with perspective. The game is currently in development at SCEA Studios Japan for PSP and the PS3 Network. Echochrome isn't the first game to play with perspective, another recent title, Crush, featured a similar play style. But perspective as a play structure isn't really what we want to look at today anyway, instead we want to look at perspective as a function of game design. Echochrome features a simple but highly effective design schema: principle-based design. Many, and indeed, possibly all good video games use this very same design method. Alot times people want to make video games far more complicated than they need to be, which in the end just makes them convoluted piles of confusion.Principle-based game design, to eschew the non-descriptive title, can more easily be defined as a style of designing games around a set of guiding principles. The beauty of principle-based game design is its functionality in gameplay. Echochrome is a perfect example of principle-based game design because it really strips the term down to its most basic roots.

Watch this video:

Echochrome has one overarching principle: what you see is true. The gameplay is governed by five principles, all of which rely on the same method of control, which is perspective. The five principles are as follows:
  • Subjective Translation
    • Connect pathways to create new avenues.
  • Subjective Landing
    • The character will land on what appears to be below.
  • Subjective Existence
    • Cover over gaps to form a continuous pathway.
  • Subjective Abscence
    • Same as Subjective Existence. Cover up holes to make it as if they aren't there.
  • Subjective Jump
    • The character will land on what appears to be above.
The game is run by these laws, or principals. Once the players understands the laws, all that is required from them to solve the puzzles is critical thinking and the use of this knowledge. More broadly, designing a game with principles for gameplay allows designer's to build the game around those laws, kniwning that players understand the rules by which the game is governed. And really, this is how most games are played. You learn a game's mechanics, then you use them to overcome the game's challenges. Obviously there are plenty of other factors, like skill and chance, but truly, principle-based game design is an excellent foundation.

Here is another demonstration of Echochrome's principals taken from an earlier development state.