Saturday, December 20

Achievement Unlocked

John, head of game development for Armor Games has created a truly spectacular Flash game: Achievement Unlocked. The game tries to be pointless, but ultimately fails. Or does it? You see, Achievement Unlocked is a fun, addictive game. I beat it twice, almost. So maybe I was wrong. Because the game proves full well that unlocking achievements is addictive as all get out.

Source: Kotaku [via n0wak]

Trackmania History

To celebrate the 5th anniversary of Trackmania, Nadeo has released a video covering the history of the series. And considering the series has a very convoluted history,if you were every confused about the order in which games were released, or what the difference is between Nations and Forevor, I would definitely encourage you to check out the video.



Source: GameTrailers

Sunday, December 7

Trine

Have I mentioned I love side-scrollers? I love side-scrollers.


Developed by Frozenbyte, for PC and PSN.
Source: GameTrailers
Official Site

Wednesday, November 26

The Mirror's Edge Debate Continues

Ben Fritz continues the debate about Mirror's Edge and reviews and innovation, of which I discussed a couple of days ago. He responds specifically to N'Gai Croal's most recent discussion on the topic. I think Fritz makes some excellent points, but Croal does as well. A particularly apt comment, I think, that Croal asserts, and also quoted by Fritz is this:
Mirror's Edge, far more so than traditional platformers, is at its most exhilarating whenever you achieve an unbroken chain of continuous motion. But because it uses a first-person camera, it drastically reduces your situational awareness as compared to a third-person camera system. That fact, combined with the need to create varied, challenging gameplay scenarios, results in a good deal of trial-and-error--which is precisely the opposite of Mirror's Edge at its most exciting. Why? Because it breaks the flow and grinds the action to a halt.
I'm in the same boat as Leigh Alexander, haven't played Mirror's Edge. But with what I think I know about game design, things gotta work together. All the pieces of the game have to complement one another. If the game is as its best when you've got the flow of parkour going, as Croal, and many others, suggests, then the level design has to accommodate that feeling. But I'm going to stop here, because having no personal experience with the game, I'm in no position to make judgments.

The other half of the Mirror's Edge discussion between these journalists concerns reviews. Fritz writes, "Too many reviews, I'm saying, don't focus enough on the big, new important elements of games. Instead they focus on the same list of attributes they always have." He cites, specifically, IGN's reviews in what I think is a fairly good criticism, calling the review "a checklist" of paragraphs. And continuing, "That's the kind of thing I find annoying, particularly for an innovative game that doesn't neatly fit the standard criteria." I agree whole-heartedly. I've read many, many, many reviews over the last eight or so years. And I can pretty much predict what they're going to say, or at least their structure. In fact, I don't even read the first two paragraphs of reviews anymore, not normally, because they house basically zero value.
Returning to the point at hand, Fritz reaches beyond reviews and discussion of Mirror's Edge and brings Left 4 Dead into the mix. Lengthy quotation ensues:
I've been surprised to see how some (overall positive) reviews criticized Left 4 Dead because the story is non-existent and a playthrough of the campaigns doesn't take too long. These are important elements in scripted single player games for sure. In a game that explicitly uses Hollywood cliches to immerse players in a world where dynamic enemy A.I. and co-op or competitive gameplay make for nearly endless opportunities for repeat gameplay, they hardly even seems worth mentioning.
Again, haven't played Left 4 Dead yet, but Fritz makes an excellent point. L4D is attacking narrative from a completely different angle than the traditional method. I have also been surprised, reading reviews of the game, to find people criticizing the story. Isn't the real story, after all, the gameplay experience. Left 4 Dead is heavily hinged on the fear and excitement of fighting off zombie hordes. The real story is the player's unique experiences. However, I do concede that players are justifiably curious about the events of Left 4 Dead's world. But as the game is structured in chapters, Valve apparently wanted players to be confused early on (much liek the characters, perhaps), with more truths to be revealed in later DLC.

It will be interesting to see how this Mirror's Edge discussion pans out from here. I've thoroughly enjoyed it thus far, that's for sure. Ultimately, I think critical discussion like this is pivotal to pushing the game industry forward. It is a good thing when such passionate individuals take it upon themselves to engage in intelligent conversation about not only a game's design, but also the state of industry and game reviews. Reviews are clearly a very important part of the game industry whole, so whatever we can do to improve the overall critical eye and process will help mature the game industry as a media circle, and therefore the game medium as well.

Side note, if you've got any awesome Left 4 Dead stories to share, send them to me, and I'll put them up on my other site, My Game Story.

Tuesday, November 25

Diegesis

Why did nobody tell me about this before? Gamasutra posted up an article the other day by Gregory Weir about "Diegesis" and specifically its use in Grim Fandango. Yeah, I'd never heard of the word either.

Wikipedia offers a nice example definition:
Sounds in films is termed diagetic if it is part of the narrative sphere of the film. For instance, if a character in the film is playing a piano, or turns on a CD player, the resulting sound is "diegetic." If, on the other hand, music plays in the background but cannot be heard by the film's characters, it is termed non-diegetic or, more accurately, extra-diegetic.
This is what I've been talking about when I use the word "seamless" in the oh so many articles I've written concerning the topic. I wish I'd known the word earlier. Weir cites a number of great examples of diegesis in video games. Here is but one:
Metroid Prime, in fact, plays with diegesis via the game's very interface. By using the X-Ray Visor, it becomes clear that while the player selects Samus's weapons with the C Stick, Samus herself chooses weapons by moving her fingers into various positions.
Thank you Mr. Weir for bringing this term to my attention. Dear readers, this is why its important to have a good vocabulary.

Bridging the Gap

Many games today are striving for a seamless, immersive gameplay experience. Alone in the Dark, Dead Space, and Mirror's Edge are good examples. But then there is the other side of the coin, the side upon which video games were built: the statistical, fourth-wall breaking presentation. These are the video games that know they're video games and aren't afraid to let players know too. RPGs and Fighting titles still use stat-tracking heavily. The immersive games, meanwhile, have rid themselves of health-bars and HUDs in the hopes that players can feel emotionally unified with game and character and maintain an unbroken, seamless gameplay experience. Why the intention is noble, and I think successful, immersive games, in shunning their other half, may be losing something that could be equally, if not even more affective, at emotionally reaching players.

Part of Metal Gear Solid's charm has always been its blending of the immersive and the statistical. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake wields a plethora of stat-heavy weapons, the HUD has a camo-index to show how well hidden Snake is, the solid-eye offers different vision modes, and so on. But Metal Gear Solid 4 adds another stat too, one that goes miles in creating a tangible, emotion connection between player and character: the psyche gauge.

In Metal Gear Solid 4, the psyche gauge keeps track of Snake's mental and emotional health. When engaged in combat or being hunted down, the alert phase switches on and a stress indicator appears on screen, displayed as a percentage. As Snake engages in combat, his stress level rises, and his psyche gauge depletes. A full psyche gauge means Snake is ready for battle. But as the gauge depletes, Snake becomes distraught, stressed, and nervous; the game screen blurs and Snake's hands begin to shake, making for an unsteady shot.

For gameplay purposes, the psyche gauge tells players they need to find a more comfortable spot soon or eat some noodles or Snake's combat performance will suffer. The gauge even has its own codec frequency, Rose, who as a psychiatrist, explains the psyche gauge in depth and will offer Snake help if players call her when the gauge is low.But the psyche gauge does more than just add a layer of difficulty. As players engage in battle, fighting enemy mercenaries, they feel a certain way. Players feel emotionally stressed when the alert phase is on, whether they're trying to hide from an onslaught of soldiers or shoot every one that comes. And Snake feels stressed too; his stress indicator and psyche gauge very explicitly display this fact. From personal experience and from Rose's explanations, players recognize that Snake's faltering mental state will soon cause him to perform less effectively. As a result, players react with worry and try to replenish Snake's pyche so as to both continue the game and relieve their own stress over dying in-game. Perhaps players also feel bad for Snake, as the psyche gauge allows for easy comprehension of his mental trauma in experiencing the brutalities of war. The psyche gauge, in so accurately and immediately representing Snake's mental health, serves as an emotional bridge between player and character, as players can directly sympathize with Snake's situation.

Players have a love/hate relationship with the story-telling style of the Metal Gear Solid series. The games are both lauded for their amazing cutscenes and wracked for their over-reliance on them. Not much changed for Metal Gear Solid 4; the game still employs cutscenes abound to relay story. But the psyche gauge not only bridges gameplay and cutscene, but also allows for a very real, personal connection between players and Snake.The genius that he is, Kojima chose to carry over the psyche gauge from gameplay to cutscene. In a good number of cutscenes throughout the game, the psyche gauge will suddenly appear and deplete a bar. (SPOILERS!) For example, in a cutscene with Naomi, Snake learns he is to die soon, only after living his last couple of weeks as a walking nuclear weapon. Snake frowns, sighs, and slumps hs shoulders, visually showing his concern. (End Spoilers!) But the psyche gauge also immediately appears on screen and depletes a bar, with a sheeeooo sound effect to boot. The obviously disappointing news and the excellent-quality graphics are plenty able on their own to show Snake's emotional distrought. But the psyche gauge, a feature heavily employed in gameplay, is what really allows us to connect. Having personal experience with the psyche gauge during gameplay, players are able to strongly emotionally connect with Snake's stress and disappointment through the gauge's appearence, and I would argue even more so than through the game's graphics.

The psyche gauge is first a gameplay feature. It tells players that they Snake needs to view a magazine fast or he won't be fit to continue. The true power of the gauge, however, is its direct and clear link between Snake and players; acts as an emotional correlation between the two. As a gameplay feature, the psyche gauge breaks immersion, but it more than makes up for the loss in its capacity for emotional bonding. And though cutscenes are often bashed for their robbing of player control and limited ability to emotionally affect players, the psyche gauge serves to blend cutscene and gameplay and is a tangibly-felt design.

Excellent Click Nothing Article

This is an old article, but still extremely relevant. Clint Hocking writes an amazing analysis of the dissonance within Bioshock. Highly recommended. By the way, I found the article by googling "ludonarrative dissonance," suggested by Leigh Alexander's most recent post about Mirror's Edge and review quibbles, inspired, ironically enough, by the Guardian article I discussed yesterday.

Monday, November 24

Awkward Thumbs

Keith Stuart over at the Guardian wrote an interesting article a bit ago about Mirror's Edge and reviewer quibles. Stuart notes, aptly, that reviews of Mirror's Edge haven't exactly been exceptional. Many reviewers cite a clunky control system as a frustrating hindrance to what Mirror's Edge attempts to achieve: fluidity.

Sterling McGarvey of Gamespy writes, "Although its strict core gameplay becomes rewarding with practice, its combat system never gels with the rest of the experience. . . . The combat's unfortunately its Achilles' heel, since it lacks the spontaneity of the free-running and in many instances brings the action to a crashing halt."

Nate Ahearn at UK IGN writes, "The collision detection is off at times, punches and kicks are very redundant and to perform a true disarm you'll need to slow down time and wait for that brief window when the weapon flashes red to snap it out of your assailant's hands."

At GameSpot, Kevin VanOrd notes, concerning the trial-error frequency and puzzle points, that "you're torn from the experience and reminded that this is, after all, just a game."

But Stuart passes these comments of as "niggling doubts about core mechanics." He goes on to compare video games to movies, and in particular the practice of reviewing each media. He Writes:
For example, no-one complains that, say, Pan's Labyrinth or Eraser Head lack the formal, easily recognizable narrative structure of a conventional movie. Their aspirations exempt them from that requirement. So should we really be marking Mirror's Edge down for control issues – a game that aspires to re-interpret the very interface between player, screen and character?
I think his point is effective. What are we really looking at when we review games? What is more important: the overall picture, or the parts within the whole? Should we look past the minute aspects of a game in favor of the general result? Or should a game be accountable for its details? Afterall, a video game is composed of many, many various aspects, all of which contribute, for the better or worse, to the end result.

Stuart ultimately asserts the following: "And ultimately, what does it mean for games criticism, if we can't appreciate visionary moments, because of these weird little checklists of gameplay qualities, constructed and adhered to with near-autistic fervor?"

Here in Italy, I'm taking a photography class. Today, we discussed the photographer Dorthea Lange, who is famous for her "Migrant Mother" photograph.  Take a look see:
Good photo eh? Interesting subject, great composition, invites questioning and contemplation. Ultimately, an excellent photograph. But what you likely do not know is that the photographer, Lange, went in and edited the photograph after its initial print. Here is the original:
Notice anything? There's a left-hand thumb in the bottom-right corner. Maybe Lange's, who knows? Regardless, this thumb, and more importantly, Lange's decision to edit the photo has drawn quite a bit of controversy. I know, its just a thumb. But what does this thumb do to the overall image? Supposedly, Lange felt the thumb threw off the composition. And it does, actually. But is the edited photograph really that much better for it?

Let's say you were reviewing the original. According to Stuart's observations, you might write something like, "Dorthea Lange's photograph, 'Migrant Mother' is a beautiful depiction of life during the great depression. However, an unidentified awkward thumb in the lower right corner throws off the composition and detracts heavily from the overall image. Therefore, though Lange's photograph hits all the right spots of composition and subject matter, its message is ultimately hindered and degraded by a misplaced thumb. That's why I give 'Migrant Mother' a 7.0/10."

Sounds fairly ridiculous. But actually, its not far from the truth as far as today's game reviews go. Lange decided that the photograph was better without the thumb, and I agree. But if we rewind a bit, is the message of the photograph, or even the composition, really hurt that badly by the thumb? I actually don't have an answer; this one comes down to personal preference. And I think its time to return to video games.

Reviews of Tomb Raider: Underworld have been coming out the past few days. And the results are not so different from that of Mirror's Edge. Guy Cocker at GameSpot writes, "Lara will frequently clip into a piece of the scenery and then refuse to come out until you stop, turn around, and run out of it again. Add all this to an incredibly unruly camera, and Tomb Raider Underworld is still just as frustrating as its predecessors."

Gabe Graziani at Gamespy writes, "One of the major detractors to the enjoyment of Underworld is the unfortunate prevalence of a number of pesky bugs." He goes on to mention one particular bug:
Lara will also occasionally display bizarre behaviors such as holding her arms out as though she's jumping whenever you try to shoot her guns. That particular issue doesn't show up terribly frequently (it only happened once during one level and we weren't able to reproduce the error), but it combines with a number of other little programming missteps to undermine the overall integrity of Underworld.
 Honestly, it seems a bit odd to me to devote an entire paragraph of what is only a two-page review to such a minor quibble, as Graziani even admits himself. That aside, should "pesky bugs" be the foundation upon which judgments are made, or are they just pessimistic thinking?

Here's what I think. There comes a point when bugs and design issues are so prevalent, they detract immensely from the intended experience. When the photograph is full of thumbs is when we need to be seriously concerned. And I really do believe every aspect of a game should function cooperatively. Camera, controls, pacing, combat, you name it. Everything should fit together like a neat little puzzle. If you've got one puzzle piece made of square ends and twice as big as the rest of the pieces, which are made of ovular ends, then the understanding and enjoyment of the overall picture is damaged as a result. But at the same time, I think its OK to forgive a game its minor faults in favor of a greater appreciation.
 
Shadow of the Colossus has plenty of design issues, I think, including significant camera and control troubles, but these wouldn't stop me from labeling the game as one of the greatest of the last generation and a true work of brilliance. Sometimes we have to think optimistically. In a technology and Internet world rife with dissenters, including highly critical gamers, we have to support our games and industry. If you think back to memories of Goldeneye 64 or Perfect Dark, you're not going to remember the fairly obnoxious control scheme, because the game was freaking amazing and offered something truly fun, something you cherish from your childhood memories. Its alright to think optimistically, to look at how the game makes you feel on the whole. Of course, games would be better without bugs, but that's basically impossible with the amount of complexity in games these days. Sometimes we can look at the greater vision and just enjoy what the game has to offer.
Images from 1Adventure
Article at the Guardian via Kotaku

Thursday, November 13

Mirror's Edge 2D!

Mirror's Edge is now in 2D! Or at least in beta. The game comes courtesy of Borne Games, most famous for their flash phenomenon, Fancy Pants Adventure. The project is also described as "a collaboration" between Borne Games and EA, meaning its officially sanctioned. But enough babble; this game freaking rocks. Its just pure fun. And the screenshots can't possibly do the awesomeness justice. The animation is impactful, fluid, and invigorating. Playing this game makes you feel cool. Jumping feels and animates perfectly, particularly when you hit the peak and do this mid-air feet plant and start arcing back down.
The music wasn't working in game for me; maybe its true for everyone, I don't know. But I set the Mirror's Edge Remix album in the background and it jived quite well. Something else: I was half-way through the level before I realized that I was playing Mirror's Edge in third-person. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to play DICE's Mirror's Edge yet, seeing as how I'm in Italy. But obviously one of the selling points of the feeling of Mirror's Edge is its first-person view, which I applaud whole-heartedly. But Borne Games has adapted ME's gameplay amazingly well in not only third-person but also 2D. The gameplay reminds me of the original Prince of Persia. One more thing, notice how the art design clearly represents to players what is runnable and what is not. I'll be writing up a more thorough impressions of the game once it releases. Be sure toe let me know what you think of Mirror's Edge 2D in the comments.

Invisible Studio Two Year Anniversary!

 
 Today is Invisible Studio's Two Year Anniversary! I see this site as a few things: a way to practice my writing, a way to practice my understanding of game design, and as a portfolio for employment someday. Thank You, Readers!
  
The above comic is from Nedroid, a site that pretty much sums up my life philosophy.

Wednesday, November 12

Further Notes on A Melding of Concepts

1up has posted an absolutely excellent interview with Prince of Persia devs Benn Mattes (producer), and Michael McIntyre (level designer). The interview is long, but covers a ton of topics, including interesting ideas on co-op design, and offers some truly great insight into the minds of these developers and the philosophy of Ubisoft Montreal. I would highly recommend reading the article. But for my purposes, the developers discuss at length the game's level design, which I also discussed in an article a couple of days ago.

Their explanations differ slightly from my own earlier conclusions, particularly the use of the term "linear," but I think the end result is the same. They explain themselves far better than I ever could, so. . .Commence Quotations!

Ben Mattes:
But not sandbox. We literally tried sandbox and it didn't work. We literally had level design that was fully beautified. It was shippable quality -- we had post effects, and everything was working in it. And we brought it to be playtested, and no one got any flow because they were overwhelmed with choice. You still had the ingredient-based controls: A to jump, B to swing off the ring. And yet they'd jump and land on a beam, and then they would just stop, because they didn't know, "Should I swing off of that pole or climb on that ledge or go over to that crack or climb up that wall or drop down to that beam?" So every step was slow, and we weren't getting that flow through the world that we wanted.

Michael McIntyre:
For acrobatics, we wanted them to be Prince of Persia-like, meaning they require inputs -- different inputs the whole way along, not like Assassin's Creed where you hold down buttons and you just flow and go. As soon as we knew we wanted that philosophy, the idea of an entirely open world wasn't working, so that was where we really had to decide to differentiate ourselves with a very controlled open world with a network of designed paths -- that's when things really started working for us on the design side.

Ben Mattes:
Yeah, when we made that decision to go to the network structure, everything just opened up to us. One of the great things about this network structure is I really believe we found the recipe -- I don't know if it's the only recipe, but it's a really good recipe -- for giving the player some of the freedom of an open world game, i.e., "Do I want to go there first or there first or there first?" putting a little more authorship into the hands of the player in terms of the experience they're going to have when playing the game, while maintaining the benefits of an on-rails, hold-your-hand linear game. Because we can more or less be guaranteed that every X number of minutes, you're going to have a relatively major set-piece type of experience, and you're going to encounter something spectacular, and we're going to push the story forward in an important way because of the way the world is organized.

We really think that fans of Drake's Fortune and God of War and Prince of Persia and all those linear action/adventure games who've never played a sandbox game, they're not going to walk into this game and suddenly feel overwhelmed by possibility, because they're still going to have the benefit of Elika's compass power, and the map structure, and the way the world is organized to have a more structured experience. But people who really like the sandbox games should hopefully feel like they're in control a little bit more, so they kind of get to dictate how the game unfolds -- and hopefully, they'll enjoy that element as well.

Interesting stuff, for sure. Ubisoft's priority was on retaining the spirit of Prince of Persia, which meant creating an environment that promoted acrobatic flow. The game hasn't come out yet, but based on everything I've seen and read, I think their final conclusion on level design will prove effective.

Tuesday, November 11

Mirror's Edge Still Alive Remix Album

Yay! After searching for almost an hour, I finally found a download location for the Mirror's Edge "Still Alive" Remix Album. The original song is by Lisa Miskovsky, but five other artists take their hand at remixing the song, with good results overall, I think. If you set the album to a playlist, you're liable to not even realize the song has switched. Which comes off as criticism but really is just the nature of listening to the, essentially, the same six songs in a row.

Download the Album
From Gemaga (Thank You!)

Sunday, November 9

A Melding of Concepts

The battle of level-based versus open-world games has raged since the early days of video games. Mario and Sonic were level-based, but Metroid and Zelda featured worlds open for exploration. Indeed, the two game design models are engaged in a never-ending tug-of-war. A few years ago, the commercial and critical success of Grand Theft Auto 3 KO'd the long popular level-based design, decrying level-based games as "linear." In this generation, for a game to be called "linear" stands out as the worst form of sacrilege.

Meanwhile, open-world games were a fascinating new breed, unbound by the constraints of a level-based structure, allowing players to stretch their virtual arms and relish in the beauty of freedom, exploration, and choice. Games that relished in open-world design include Crackdown, The Incredible Hulk, and the Mercenaries series. But as the past-generation fades and the present hits its limelight, critics and game designers alike have bored gaping holes into the formally lauded open-world structure, revealing many pitfalls of its own. The tug-of-war continues, with both level-based and open-world games planting their feet firm before the mud-pit.
Ubisoft's Far Cry 2 was released only a couple of weeks ago, and the reception has been fairly split. Just look at Gamespy and Gamespot's catch-lines for their respective reviews of the game.
Gamespot's Shaun McInnis writes, "...Far Cry 2's first-person action squeezes every last drop of potential out of the unique African setting." Whereas Gamespy's Fargo writes, "Visually breathtaking and ambitious in scope, Far Cry 2 falls shy of it's amazing potential."
McInnis goes on to write, ". . .Far Cry 2's free-roaming terrain brilliantly harmonizes with the first-person combat." Fargo, meanwhile, writes, "The pacing of the game is way off. The majority of your time is spent driving to or from missions or safe houses or bus stops." And continues, "Far Cry 2 could've easily been a four-star game or higher if the focus would've been on the missions and not the travel."

Similarly, Chris Remo wrote an opinion piece about Far Cry 2 on Gamasutra, about authored narrative versus emergent narrative. Remo writes:
The game's persistent component parts feel designed to convey a convincingly (but not flashily) coherent world, but even more importantly to increase the chances of memorable things happening. [...] In fact, the game tries to define a set of rules and an environment in which memorable experiences are likely to happen, and simply lets the player loose in its world -- a fascinating prospect.
Clearly, people are of split opinion on open-world structure and of Far Cry 2 specifically. But each of these three commentators above make valid points. McInnis believes that Far Cry 2's open-world meshes well with its first-person-shooter gameplay. Fargo feels the open-world structure (of Far Cry 2, at least) creates a cohesive world, but is hindered by hideously repetitive sequences. Remo, on the other hand, is excited by the "prospect" of memorable, emergent gameplay scenes only made possible by the game's open-world. Who is right? They all are, really. But lets look at some more examples.
A game which eschews the open-world structure, soon to be released, is Blue Omega's Damnation. Damnation is a level-based third-person shooter which emphasizes verticality. In fact, the game is often marketed as "Taking the Shooter Vertical." Jacob Minkoff was interviewed a few months ago in Play Magazine. In the interview, he defends Blue Omega's decision to keep Damnation level-based in a time when both publishers and gamers seemingly refuse to invest in anything but open-world. And I think Minkoff makes something very clear: level-based is not synonymous with linear. Level-based games have accrued this stigma of linearity, which even itself isn't bad but has been painted black by critics and forum-goers. Even so, Minkoff explains why level-based games can be fun without being linear:
I sort of equate it to the idea of a three-year-old getting their own soda from the soda machine. I love coke, and I love orange, and I love lemonade, and I'm going to put them all together--but then, oh my god, I don't want to drink this! I think that's the feeling that occasionally happens, it's like, you want choice, well here you go. Here's every choice you could ever want. Well, now there are so many choices I don't know quite what to do. What we're trying to do [with Damnation] is find that balance. You've got choice. You won't feel trapped or claustrophobic or held down in the game, but you're not set adrift.
To achieve this, every level in Damnation has a clear objective in the distance. The player's goal is to reach that objective by any means necessary. In the same Play interview, Minkoff likens the concept to a famous trilogy: "Lord of the Rings is all about that. Tower, get to it."

Taking the shooter vertical is more than just a marketing line, its a design foundation. Blue Omega didn't want for Damnation to fall prey to the pitfalls of the open-world genre, but also wanted to avoid the negative perception of the dullness of linear progression, and so they designed with a mantra of interesting, tall level design. The levels in Damnation offer multiple routes for tackling situations; players have to be both observant and skilled to make the most of the environment. Additionally, players have access to a "spirit vision" or a self described "wall hack" which allows them to see the glowing auras of nearby enemies. Everything works hand-in-hand.

And this is really the core philosophy behind Damnation: The levels, platforming, shooting, spirit vision; everything was designed in unison to function cooperatively. The game wouldn't be the same in first-person; the freedom of platforming would likely be lost. Likewise, the game wouldn't be the same with an open-world structure. You're probably thinking by now, "Well of course; that's obvious." Is it? The only reason it seems obvious is because Blue Omega designed a cohesive structure. They could have just as easily tried to fit Damnation into an open-world structure, but as is, the attempt would have failed. The point is that neither level-based nor open-world is "the right way." Both offer their own opportunities and limitations. Good design is taking advantage of either form and building a game to mesh with the chosen structure.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Another platforming game soon to be released is Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia. Unlike Damnation, Prince of Persia takes place in an open-world. But just like it would be incorrect to label Damnation as linear, it would be unwise to label Prince of Persia with all of the negative connotations recently associated with the open-world structure. In an interview with IncGamers, Thomas Delbugeut explains PoPs unique structure:
Granted, there are a lot of things that are different about this Prince of Persia – the prince is completely different, the atmosphere is completely different – but we wanted to keep all the core elements that make it Prince of Persia. We lost most of that trying to incorporate an open world structure. So we went back to the drawing board and created more of a network thing, which allowed us to get more of those step-by-step sequences. It was a lot more interesting and ended up giving us the game we have now.
A network. Not open-world, not level-based, a unique approach to level design. In a Developer Diary, Producer Ben Mattes describes the structure "with an analogy" of a highway system, wherein players choose different routes connecting various cities in the world. As with Damnation, the routes are specifically designed to function with the Prince's acrobatic abilities and powers. Wall-runs, slides, pole hugs, shimmy's: sounds linear, doesn't it? But Montreal has in-fact (presumably, of course) completely avoided the stigmas of both level-based and open-world structures by merging the two forms. It's worth noting that Prince of Persia is different from open-world games such as Mercenaries 2 or Far Cry 2 in that it's not focused on emergent gameplay situations. But that's actually the beauty of the design. Prince of Persia is about scripted gameplay sequences; it's a puzzle-platformer. But by opening up the world halfway with a split-path structure, Ubisoft has avoided any prospect of being undermined as linear.
There's one more game coming out this winter that forgoes open-world structure for straight-up level-based gameplay. Not to say it's linear, either. I'm talking about Mirror's Edge, the first-person parkour game developed by DICE.

Chris Remo (again) recently interviewed Mirror's Edge producer Nick Channon for Gamasutra. In the interview, Channon discusses the philosophy behind the game's structure:
I think it's just looking at what you've got, looking at where your strengths are in your game, and in your mechanics, and building the levels out around it. And the fact that we could've gone open world, we could've made a game that felt very open, but we went for a more linear story, and we went for a more level-based game -- and the reason for that was that we wanted to pack as much action in as we could.

As soon as we'd have gone open world, I think that would've watered it down. So I think that was one learning, in the fact that a lot of people think, nowadays, that open world's the way to go, and it's the next-gen thing -- I don't think I believe it is.

It's clearly right for some games, absolutely, but you can actually get a lot more in, at times, in more of a level-based [game].

Channon hits the nail on the head. Open-world structure is right for some games, but it wasn't right for Mirror's Edge, and DICE realized this. DICE had goals, priorities. And like Blue Omega has also done, Mirror's Edge has been designed for every aspect to work cooperatively. Something I didn't mention earlier, Ubisoft didn't feel the open-world structure catered to the intense, one-on-one fights that were to take place in Prince of Persia; they weren't making Dynasty Warriors, and they knew it. So Ubisoft designed the world alongside the combat structure, so the two fit together like a nice little puzzle. In a similar manner, DICE had certain things they wanted to accomplish with Mirror's Edge, among them being a strong, linear narrative. And to achieve this, they designed the game with levels, because they felt it fit their intentions and motivations. But a linear narrative does not mean linear levels. Far from it. In the same interview at Gamasutra, Channon expounds upon the above statement.
You have to give a choice; it can't be just, 'Do this, do this,' you know. And that's what we've done: We've built every level out to have lots of choice, and I think the thing that we're really pleased about is that, actually, the amount of choice in every level is just limited to your imagination. Which really plays in the movement, and the parkour elements that we talked about.

You see what Channon is saying? Level based. In part to help the narrative, but still offering freedom of movement, split-second, instinctive choice, to complement the fast-paced action. Additionally, DICE has consistently said that they want the levels to be replayable. How many times have you played the demo? Exactly. Much like time trials in racing games, the levels in Mirror's Edge are intended to be played again and again, encouraging players to find, and successfully perform "that perfect run."

Here is the point of my rabble: it's about the design. Level-based, open-world, a mix of the two, they're all correct so long as the game is designed from every perspective, every facet, ever aspect to work cooperatively as one cohesive unit. Far Cry 2 was designed open-world to keep player's immersed in the illusion and to encourage experimentation with the nigh infinite weapons and approaches available to any given situation. Damnation promotes experimentation with approach as well, but in a completely different manner with a level-based, vertically oriented structure. Prince of Persia blends the benefits of both worlds to maintain its puzzle platforming gameplay without feeling overtly linear. And Mirror's Edge focuses high-speed action within a linear narrative by offering split-path levels.

The tug-of-war between the the two sides is likely to continue, but we're also starting to realize that both approaches offer plenty of opportunity for effective gameplay scenarios if designed properly.

Update: Mirror's Edge Discussion Continued Here.

Tomorrow: Linear is Fun

Sources:
Sonic and Knuckles from Neoseeker
All other images from Gamespot

Tuesday, November 4

New Yorker Gears of War 2 Article

The New Yorker website has posted a long, extremely well-written article on Gears of War 2 and Cliff Bleszinski called The Grammar of Fun, by Tom Bissell. The article goes in depth-on Gears of War 2, the life of Bleszinski, the operation of Epic Games, and a myriad of other things. I highly recommend it.

Defcon AI

Introversion's Defcon is getting AI Bots. And it learns and adapts over multiple games. And, interested individuals will be able to build their own AI models. Until now, the game has featured only a simple, limited bot. You can read a very interesting article about the construction of the Defcon AI by the AI author, Robin Baumgarten. He discusses choosing between fun AI or realistic AI, and other design issues associated with the bot's construction. At Baumgarten's site, the author also has available two PDF files on the project: a massive 130 pager thesis and an in-depth article about the design and construction of the AI. I read through the article and, though much of the information was over my head, Baumgarten put significant though, time, and consideration into the AI design. The problems he faced I think are quite similar to those of game designers. I'd never realized how intricate, complex, and interesting designing AI is; it's amazing.

If you haven't played Defon: Everybody Dies, I highly recommend it. Excellent game. You can download a free demo at Introversion's site for PC, Mac, or Linux.

Monday, November 3

WWII General Commander

Today, a game was announced called World War II General Commander -- Operation: Watch on the Rhine. Watch the video from GameTrailers below.



This is an older trailer, but the newer trailer is bland and really quite unexciting. It was developed by Games GI, based out of Madrid, and published by Stragames.

Watch on the Rhine may not be a big-budget or big-production title, but, the game's got some great stuff going for it. The graphics are beautiful, if you ask me. The presentation is that of commanding an army with a strategic board. As you zoom in, it appears, and switch between view modes, the graphics change to show off the available resources, icon views of the battalions under your control, and "detailed 3D models" fighting in realistic environments. The array of graphical styles is impressive enough as it is and reminds me of both Defcon and Supreme Commander.
And then I went to the main website; the game had caught my eye. Reading through the game tutorial, there is some pretty darn impressive strategy going on in this game. Supplies, efficiency (seems to play a large role), terrain advantages and boons, a large variety of unit types, Watch on the Rhine boasts some impressive intricacies beneath its graphics.Basically, I think this game looks awesome and wanted to share it with my readers. World War II General Commander is available for downloading on the 11th, and Watch on the Rhine seems to be just the first in a series of General Commander titles.

Thursday, October 30

Development of Presentation in Paintings of the Last Supper

I'm taking a Renaissance Art class here in Italy. It's my first art history class ever, and I'm really enjoying it. Yesterday, we looked at Leonardo da Vinci's very famous the Last Supper, and particularly in comparison to earlier renditions of the gospel story. And to what tract of thought did this analysis lead, why game design of course. I'm no art history expert, so my commentary here will be highly limited, potentially incorrect, and mostly taken from my textbook and the comments of my professor, Dr. Adrian S. Hoch.

Leonardo da Vinci's presentation of message in his fresco of the Last Supper was highly innovative for its time; there is a reason the artist introduced the High Renaissance era of artwork. Whereas earlier paintings of the story employed contrived, blatant symbolism, da Vinci eschewed these methods for a more naturalistic, seamless conveyance of message.

Let's look at three earlier paintings, all of the Last Supper.

Last Supper, Tree of Life, and Four Miracle Scenes. Taddeo Gaddi, 1360. In the Refectory, Santa Croce, Florence
Last Supper, Andrea Del Castagno, 1447. In the Cenacolo of Sant' Apollonia, Florence.Last Supper, Domenico del Ghirlandaio. 1480. In the Refrector, Ognissanti, Florence.All of three of these paintings came before da Vinci, all ascribe to a similar form, and all convey the gospel messages through similar means. We need to review the gospel story in general before we go on. These paintings depict the last supper of Jesus story found in the Synoptic Gospels of the New Testament. The story recounts Jesus' final meal with his twelve disciples, one of whom, Judas, would soon betray him for greed. Also notice how the apostle John is asleep atop the table. The major themes are all presented in the same way throughout each of these three paintings. And their message is effective; the depictions clearly present the story.

Most obviously, Judas, the betrayer, is sitting on the opposite side of the table as Jesus and the rest of the disciples, clearly setting him apart as different. Furthermore, Jesus and eleven of the disciples are painted with halos; Judas, meanwhile is bare-headed, indicating his sin. These messages are clear and well-portrayed. But they're also a bit blatant. Leonardo da Vinci changed all of this.

Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci. 1495-1497. Refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
The differences between da Vinci's painting and that of his predessecors and contemporaries is stunning. Leonardo depicts the moment exactly as Jesus states that one of his apostles shall betray him. The apostles are all painted with extreme motion and emotion, each reacting heavily to Jesus' pronouncement. The extremity of facial expressions could have been drawn from Ghirlandaio's painting, as the History of Italian Renaissance Art notes. But unlike previous paintings, da Vinci places Judas on the same side of the table as the rest of the apostles.

But this does not mean we can't identify which apostle is Judas. Far from it, we can find Judas three figures to Jesus' right, covered in shadow, drawn back in horror, knowing and afraid of his guilt. With one hand, Judas grasps the money back given to him for his betrayal. With the other, he reaches for a loaf of bread, as written in the Gospel of Luke. Furthermore, the apostle John is no longer sleeping, and gone are the circlular halos. This I think is particularly apt point in regards to game design. Jesus is naturally haloed by the window behind him. The effect is a naturalistic, seamless one, not bogged down by the triteness of blatant circles.

All of these paintings are excellent. But da Vinci took the established standard and compltely surpassed it. Whereas before, symbolism, message, and theme were conveyed through obvious representations in the painting, e.g. Judas on our side of the table, visible haloes, da Vinci managed to present these exact same messages naturally: Judas in shadow and in shock, Jesus haloed by the window light.
I think its clear what I'm getting at. Video games are moving fast towards a more seamless presentation of information. Look at the very recent Alone in the Dark, Far Cry 2, or Dead Space. All of these titles eschew the traditional HUD in favor of a more natural, realistic, in-world presentation. Alone in the Dark has an inventory system wherein players look at the pockets of their vest. Far Cry 2 keep players in-line with the vision of the character at all times: when he gets into cars, when he pulls shrapnel out of his body, etc. Dead Space displays information on Isaac's back or on the hologram in front of him, which is visually skewed as the camera is rotated, nor does the game wrest control from players. The upcoming Mirror's Edge places movement in the first-person-perspective like never before. Players can see, hear, and feel Faith's running limbs and wheezing breath. Are we now moving towards our own High Renaissance of Video Games? All of these games are doing amazing things, and as time goes on, as we enter the next-generation of video games only 2 or 3 years from now, the bar is certain to raise ever higher.

Sources:
History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture 6th Ed. by Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins. Published by Prentice Hall, 2007.

Andrea del Castango painting from Wikimedia.

Gaddi , Ghirlandaio, and da Vinci paintings from the Web Gallery of Art.

Dead Space image from Gamespot.

Monday, October 27

Berber Games

For fall break I went on a camel trek in Morocco. I went hiking with a Berber guide through the Sahara for three days, from Mhamid to the Erg Chigaga dunes. It was awesome. While camping, my guide taught me a few games. All of which were played by drawing lines in the sand and using nearby rocks or sticks for pieces. And though at first the games seemed familiar, I quickly learned that the Berber have their own native rule-sets. It was really fascinating seeing a different cultures take on the classics. Also, my guide is way smarter than me.

Tic-Tac-Toe
This was actually taught to me by my guides son, Hassan, who joined us on the trek. something interesting of note: most games in the US are played with squares or grids. All of these games were played with dots, usually on the intersecting points of lines. Which were far more suitable for their rule-sets than grids could have been. You'll see why in a moment.

Tic-Tac-Toe was played by drawing 4 intersecting lines in the sand. One vertical line, one horizontal, and two diagonal cutting through the two, which forms an 8 slice pie. Players take turns placing down pieces, we used rocks and sticks, until each player has three pieces on the board. The first piece must be placed in the center. In the version of tic-tac-toe I'm used to playing, this is where the game ends. But in the Berber version (and I'm sure in other cultures' versions as well) the game continues past three pieces, insteading of calling it cat and starting over. 

The seventh turn begins the moving process, wherein players alternate moving their pieces around the board to achieve three-in-a-row. Pieces can only be moved to adjacent points, either horizontally, vertically, or diagnally. Pieces can not be jumped or lost in any way, and only one piece can occupy a single point at any time. And thats it. Its really quite fun. You'll counter one move only to have another unseen move make a row. The lines, instead of a grid, function to connect the points and better display potential moves.

Berber Checkers
Berber checkers is played on a cross-hatched 4x4 grid constisting of 24 lines: 5 vertical, 5 horizontal, and 14 diagnal. Pieces are placed on the points of intersecting lines, making for 41 spaces total. At the start, each player puts their 20 pieces on the first grid and a half of their side, leaving the center space open.  Players may only move to empty points or jump over enemy pieces. Players cannot jump their own pieces. Usually, pieces may only be moved forward. However, pieces may also be moved laterally if jumping over an enemy. Additionally, moves can be chained together in a single turn if you can connect multiple jumps over enemies. If a piece reaches the end, it is kinged, allowing it to move as a bishop does in chess, except with the added ability to jump pieces across the board and to connect multiple jumps. The most interesting difference between this version of checkers and the version I grew up with, is that the cross-hatch points offer only 4 moves whereas the other points offer 8 moves.

Berber Mancala
I learned about this from trying to teach it. I was trygint o show Hassan, the son, the game mancala. But I couldn't remember the rules exactly. But he recognized what I was trying to do and then showed me how the game is really played! I initially drew the board as a grid, but my guide, Mohammad, came over and replaced my squares with cups. 

Berber mancala is played with 12 cups, 6 cups per side, and without any end-zones or goals. In each cup is placed 3 pieces. Players can only intiate a move from their own side. Players take all pieces from a single cup and, moving clock-wise, place one piece per cup until your hand is empty. If the last piece is placed in a cup that already contains pieces, the cup is drawn and the process is repeated. No points can be scored until the third turn. If the last piece in a hand lands in a cup of 3, therefore making 4 total in the cup, then all of the pieces are taken by that player, regardless of the side. However, if a cup accumulates exactly 4 pieces during a pass, then whosever side the cup belongs to obtains all 4 pieces for him or herself. If any cup contains 12 or more pieces at any time, then the entire cup is taken by whosever side the cup belongs to. The game ends when all of the cups on one player's side are empty, the winner being the opponent. 

But the game continues. All of the pieces are counted and placed back in the cups, and whoever has more pieces progress his or her area of control forwards. So if one player has 21 pieces and the other has only 15, then the player with 21 now controls 7 cups, encroaching upon the territory of the opponent. The game ends definitively when one player obtains all of the pieces and controls all of the cups.

In return, I taught them how to play The Very Clever Pipe Game! which they thoroughly enjoyed, and tried to teach them Arrowgame, but with the language barrier this was a much more difficult task.

What are your experiences with cultural takes on games?

Saturday, October 4

Nifty

GamesRadar has a list up of The Evolution of the Tree, and other things. The list is entertaining at the very least, but actually pretty interesting. Give it a look.

Thursday, October 2

I Wish You Were The Moon

Pixels, hearts, the moon, and photography? This game was basically made for me.

I wish you were the moon by Daniel Benmergui

Tuesday, September 30

Fate Illuminate

I wrote a villanelle about Mirror's Edge. I eschewed some of the form's rules, for example, rhyming, but I think it's worked out for the best so far. I would explain what the poem is trying to exude, but hopefully the poem can take care of that itself. Hope you like it.

Fate Illuminate

supplant that twinge of hesitation
momentum steeled in exhalation
that bound beyond horizon's edge

to the dogs throw any scraps of fear
check all pity for your bruising lungs
supplant that twinge of hesitation

saliva bitter, spit out the tar
grit concrete into bleeding pores
for that bound beyond horizon's edge

sinews snap and callous bursts
pontify your leap to fate
supplant that twinge of hesitation

overt exertion, ecstatic motion
a secretion of endorphins blind
that bound beyond horizon's edge

of reason shatter any bastion
reflecting faith in mirror's frame
supplant that twinge of hesitation
that bound beyond horizon's edge

Saturday, September 20

Designing With Goosebumps and Without Censors

In my non-fiction class, we're learning about the process of writing. Writing is a a process of creativity, of the imagination, and of the spirit. Writing is this junction point of creativity and imagination, it is an expression, convalescence of emotions and thoughts as words. Our best writing comes naturally and fluidly, but only if we allow it. We have been discussing how a careful first draft is a failed first draft, courtesy of Patricia Hampl. As humans, we have this thing in our mind called a censor. This censor filters our thoughts before they emerge into the open world. The censor is a fact-checker, a security gate checking to see that our thoughts are somehow legitimate before we let them leave our mind. In writing, the censor is more of a hindrance than a benefit. Because our censor questions the validity of our intuition and our imaginative subconscious. Anything our censor finds false, lacking, or incomplete, it throws into the trash for immediate incineration. But this censor halts our imaginative flow and stops our real genius from ever getting on the page. So right now we're practicing over-coming our censor, not letting it block our flow and just writing whatever comes out. There is always room for revision later.

I've come upon the same conclusion for game design. I think the present process of game design is moreso a science than an art. We have a heavy, thick-walled censor for designing games. Or at least I do, and am practicing to overcome it as well. Our game design censor has a face, many actually: reviews, gamers, publishers, friends, design theory, mechanical knowledge, and the gamer we know ourselves to be. So when we design games, every idea we come up with has to pass through this series of security gates, diminishing its chances of ever seeing the light of day. But these ideas our coming from a place of art, a place of genius and creativity and where pigs can fly. This place inside of us is our passion. It can feel the truth of interactivity and joy and learning. But when we allow our censors to fact-check each fairy or brilliant gem that flows by, we lose the imagination and creativity and passion, the essence, of our artistic genius.

Cliff Bleszinski ignores his censor. He designs with goosebumps on his arms. You know what its like. When an epiphany strikes and you know you can feel it, you can feel so strongly that twinge of genius, that spark of awesomeness from within. And the next moments are amazing. As you explore at light speed this universe of ideas. Your smiling and your heart's beating fast because this idea has so much gravity. But almost immediately your censor stops the imagination and asks, "will that actually be fun," and, "how do you control it," and, "will anyone actually want to play this." These questions can be asked later, once you've allowed the ideas to flow and the mystery has been explored. Otherwise the censor will stop you in your tracks and discourage you from exploring what could be something truly great.

CliffyB, I think, designs without his censor. He feels game design. Just watch this Developer Diary about Sound in Gears of War 2:


You see what I mean. He feels. And I think this is what so many games are lacking these days. Feeling. Its so important that games have passion, that they breathe, that they have spirit. And I think this comes from the fact that Cliffy has a connection with his game. Gears 2 is uniquely his own and is infused with his passion and energy.

Next time you get that twinge of enlightenment, ignore your censor for awhile and see where your genius takes you. Don't worry about gamers' expectations, or the AAA benchmark, or what everybody else is doing. Just listen to your spirit talk and let it show you what your passion can achieve when set free.

Thursday, September 11

Your Point of View I

This fall, I'm studying in Perugia, Italy, which is right in between Florence and Rome. I've been here two weeks, hence the lack of posts. Before I came to Italy, I was in New York City for a few days visiting my brother. As you likely know, the subway trains in NYC are plastered with posters. Where better to advertise than in high traffic places, right? Most of the posters are fairly boring, but, thanks to my brother, one type caught my eye. They're called "Your Point of View," an ad campaign by the HSBC bank. The posters display two images juxtaposed with two different labels. They're fairly though provoking. Here is an example. Be sure to check out all of them in full size at the official site.To me, of course, the images rang true of game design. Game design is about choices. From initial concept to completion, we are constantly making decisions. Is this right for the game? Or is this better? How does this feature support the game? Do I want this control mapped to the right trigger or the left? and on and on. Ultimately, we need to critically analyze each decision we make to ascertain its true value. Why not put this though process into practice. This juxtaposition of images can be a really cool game design exercise. Starting today, I will periodically upload my own "your point of view" images, photographs courtesy of your truly. I would make a nice photoshop poster, but I don't exactly have access to the software right now. So without further ado, the first "your point of view" thought prompt.

open
liner
linear
open

Please feel free to leave any comments.

hsbc ad image link
all other images by Finn Haverkamp.

Thursday, August 21

Hero Design Challenge

Game Career Guide continues to run a game design challenge each week. Last week's challenge was to design a hero. This was my third time submitting, and I pulled away with an honorable mention. Thanks to Jill Duffy and the GCG staff, and congratulations to all of the winners!

Tuesday, August 19

The Worth Game

My brother and I are designing an MMO, called Project Fun. We were talking about the game’s design last night, and, having not discussed the game in a while, we wanted to return to the roots

Last night we were discussing the game’s design, and I wanted to return to the roots of the project: what makes Project Fun fun? Fun is, after all, the entire purpose of this game’s existence. So nailing down this aspect seemed fairly crucial. The problem was I couldn’t answer the question. Why is Project Fun fun? To find the answer, I asked myself a rudimentary question: "what makes most games fun? what makes MMO's fun?" Perhaps seeking some revelatory light, I decided to be a break-down of World of Warcraft, because it is both a game and an MMO, and it's successful.

The fun gameplay of WoW, I discovered, comes from the support of three pillars. These pillars not only share the load of “fun” in WoW, but also the weight and effectiveness of one another. At the most basic level, WoW is fun moment-by-moment. Running, jumping, attacking, managing talents, these are the game's cells. Supporting this pillar is the mission-game. Players are constantly moving towards an objective, a quest, the next level, a raid. The end-game of this pillar is better loot. The third pillar, which reinforces both the other pillars and an overall concept of fun, is the meta-game. WoW's primary meta-game is making your character uber. Another meta-game is your social- and support-role in a guild.

And then what? Hm. Let's recap.

WoW has three pillars, all of which support a goal of fun. You may have noticed that these pillars can actually be attributed to most games. Let’s look at Mario. Moment-game: run and jump/collect coins. Mission-game: collect a star/get to the next level. Meta-game: save the princess/beat the game. The structure is sound. The moment-game is essential. And so is the mission-game. And so is the meta-game. The moment-game provides an immediate stimulus of fun. If the immediate action, be it physical or mental, isn’t fun, then the rest of the game is meaningless. But without an objective, the moment gets old pretty fast. The mission-game provides a challenge or set-piece in which to test the player’s moment-to-moment skills. But then the mission ends. And there to reinforce the structure is the meta-game. You wouldn’t play moment-by-moment without a goal to test your skills against. And you wouldn’t complete the goal without a larger, more meaningful objective. And then I ask: but why complete the meta-game.

I’ll just tell you right now, the answer is fun, which effectively brings the pillars full-circle. The goal of playing is to have fun. And maybe that’s good enough. But maybe not. I don’t really have an issue with the structure. Game design wise, this system makes perfect sense. Assuming each pillar is solid, fun is perfectly balanced. But is that all there is to the system? I lied; I do have an issue. My issue is intention.

I’m speaking specifically about WoW here, because Mario ends. Blizzard has perfectly honed this system. Call it science; call it math; call it whatever you want. I call it crack. WoW’s pillar system is built with a bait mentality. It is a carrot and stick reward system. Let me break it down: get quest, run to quest, kill mobs, loot mobs, return to quest-giver, receive loot, gain level, get new quest. Blizzard isn’t lying about anything. Your character is getting better. But as a person, you are getting worse. At first, the addiction might be fun. The pillars are indeed solid. It’s a new experience in an exciting world. But pretty soon, WoW becomes a reward grind. But are you still having fun? Doing the same things you did at level 1, are you still having fun? Or is it just an illusion? Addictions mentally and chemically make us believe we enjoy something. But at what point did the addiction stop contributing to our lives? At what point did the game become less so fun, and more so necessity.

I do need to make a disclaimer. There are many out there who do learn and grow from WoW. Specifically, those who nurture relationships in-game, who learn from others, who become better people through their social interactions are benefitting from WoW. But they have escaped the addiction. To them, the game is no longer about getting more loot. They are taking advantage of WoW’s other attributes to grow as people, not as avatars. Another example, WoW can teach players how to work together. Teamwork, leadership, sacrifice, some players learn these skills from playing WoW. But again, for them the loot becomes secondary, a perk, they enjoy WoW as an outlet for social expression. I also think of the Penny-Arcade guys; I know for a fact that they are too smart to become addicted to a system. They derive some other, more valuable, meaning from the game.

I am making a very large assumption. That WoW’s pillar system was designed to be addictive to players. The present MMO structure is what’s really at fault. The game and company thrives from long-term play. So designing a system that promotes long-term play is essential to the game’s success.

My issue with all of this is intention. What is the game intended to do for players? A better question: what is the game intended to do for people? What is the game’s purpose? Why does it exist? How does it benefit a person’s life? I cannot answer these for WoW, though I can make guesses. The most obvious is fun. Or, how about relaxation after a long day at work, or vegging out, or escaping the torture of homework? Intention. What is your game intended to do? If WoW’s answer is fun, does it succeed? The answer to that, however, is not intention, it is affect.

Affect is what people gain from the game? Regardless of intentions, what do people get from playing? WoW might act as a stabilizer. Maybe the pillars of fun are something solid for people to lean against. Maybe WoW is something people can rely on for support and comfort in a difficult life. It’s always there. It’s easy to do. It gets your mind off of the craziness of day-to-day life. This is great until it becomes a crutch. Also known as an addiction. Where players cannot function without it. Where the game becomes necessary to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. And then what are people learning from the game?

And now the question isn’t about fun at all. The question is, what is the purpose of this game. I asked my brother that very question last night. “Fletcher, what is the purpose of Project Fun?” He answered, “fun.” And I asked, “Why fun?” He responded, “Why life?”

The great Carl once said, “Why does anyone do anything?” This question is the meaning of life. The answer is to grow as people. To learn. To develop. Our goal is to change. Not to change negatively, and not to remain static, addicted to something that stopped giving long ago. We need to ask, “what is our purpose?” If the answer is to design games, then the designing of those games should help us grow as individuals, and our creations should help others grow as individuals too. It’s the golden rule.

The question is, what is the purpose of my game? What is the worth-game? The answer might be fun. The answer might be to provide relief from stress to individuals. But we need to seek a higher purpose. We need to find something deeper than a take-twice-daily dosage of stress-relief.

In his book Jonathon Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach writes, “There’s so much more to flying than just flapping around from place to place!” Game should be fun. I mean heck, I love fun. But games can offer so much more than fun for the sake of fun. Games can offer experiences that help us grow. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, games can take us places that we didn’t expect, to universes we didn’t know existed, but can be fun while doing it.

Tuesday, August 12

Aperture Science

"This is cake," my brother Hans exclaims, completely oblivious of the irony of his statement. Watching my brothers and friends play Portal is like, well, maybe the cake isn't a lie after all. Interested in player-learning, I put a number of my family and friends through GLadDOS's test chambers. As their first game since the days of Ikari Warriors, Portal was an anomaly, a universe unexplored. And like GLadDOS, I was a passive observer. No clues. No hints. Just the players finding their way. Aperture Science isn't the real analyst of the Portal gun, we are. Portal is player-teaching, player self-learning, player-everything. Portal is Aperture Science. And Aperture Science is teaching players how to teach themselves.

"I got to go through a chute and there's cake at the end," my brother Noah surmises, looking at one the test chambers' helpful diagrams. Also playing Portal for the first time, Noah is learning all about Portal's and guns and suspicious wall-mounted cameras. "I love how you run into this and it makes sound. . . .I never use my strafe button. It's a lot of fun. . . . . This is amazing! I'm totally in another world." We're fairly jaded as core gamers. A good example, we take it for granted that we are actually playing as someone. "I can see myself," my friend Mike exclaims, "I'm a girl." For Noah, this realization comes in waves. "Hey! there's a person". And later, "It's me." he pauses to make sure, "It's totally me cause she does everything I do." Hans is more critically observant. "That body runs weird." Hans is an exercise physiologist.Learning is about trial and error, and so is Portal. At the 2008 Nordic Game Jam, Jonathan Blow discussed conveyance, or how a game teaches players how to play. Conveyance, Blow says, is when "you start to make inferences about the game world and how it works." Aperture Science. During his presentation, Blow looked at a number of indie games, discussing at one point Rod Humble's The Marriage:
So you start playing this game, and you've just got a mouse cursor, and you move it around, and you notice that things react to where you put the cursor. And you start to understand the patterns. And then you start to interpret the patterns . . . You really understand what he was trying to say simply through this process of conveyance.
Blow is discussing a seamless conveyance. A far cry from the established tutorial, seamless conveyance is experiential learning. Play and learn. Learn and play. For experiential learning, Portal's test chambers are a pristine model. Seamless conveyance, experiential learning, aperture science: they all refer to the same thing. It is creating a guideline for player learning, for player self-teaching.Earlier today my nephew Foust was playing with a Batman action figure. "What does he do?" he asked. I answered, "whatever you want him to." Foust proceeded to fly Batman around as if he were Superman. Players are looking for boundaries. They want to know what they can do and what they cannot. It's up to us to show them. In Portal, players teach themselves these rules, exploring the limits of the Portal gun. But if we let players run rampid, they might become frustrated and confused. The success of Portal is its test chambers. The test chambers are specifically designed to allow players to teach themselves the game's mechanics. Portal travel, cubes, prolonged exposure to buttons, the game's mechanics are numerous. But the game plays simpler than we imagine because its rules are presented so smoothly. Learning them is natural, challenging, and fun.

introduction of challenge.As a matter of fact, this is a good time to mention the interdependence of these concepts. Challenge is fun. Challenge engages players' minds, forces them to think, to reason, to use logic. The lack of challenge means easy gameplay, which means boring gameplay, because the minds of our players aren't working. We want the mental cogs to be spinning. On the flip-side, however, if the challenge exceeds the player's present skills, then it's like throwing a monkey wrench into the player's mental cogs: the game is too hard, the mind cannot process everything being presented. But challenge remains for only so long. Something difficult, when learned, becomes second-hand nature. And this is where flow comes in. Mathematically, one challenge looks like an inverse U curve. Easy, then the challenge comes, then easy again once the challenge is mastered. Flow equals a constant upward curve of Challenge. This achievement requires a continuousClosely related to this is something called M+1. This comes from a developer commentary in a level of Sly Cooper (hands-down one of the best games ever). M in this equation is a skill, challenge, or obstacle, and the +1 refers to the amplification of that challenge. This found all over Sly Cooper, but in this particular level, M+1 meant dodging a series of lasers which became continuously more and more complex. This continuous amplification of challenge assures player flow, as the player's skills are continuously both learned and tested. In lamens, we need to maintain challenge and flow while teaching players new mechanics, obstacles, and skills in order to create a continuity of fun. How about some more algebra. If the answer is always Fun, then what is the question?Portal teaches players incrementally. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that a mechanic is introduced in one level then reapplied two or three levels later. Level 7, for example, is just like level 6, but opposite and combined with the skills from level 3. In reality, there is no formula. Valve simply devoted themselves to intense play-testing and reiterated their levels probably hundreds of times to create a smooth flow for players.

It was very interesting when this failed. Will struggled during a level when he inadvertently skipped the learning of an essential skill earlier on. In level 9, the "impossible" level, players generally shoot a portal through the hole in the wall then walk through the fixed orange portal behind them with cube in tow. Will, however solved the puzzle by walking through the energy field, and shooting a portal on that side of the wall creating a link between the two rooms without using the hole. Surprisingly, this innovation hurt him when level 11 came around, the level where players retrieve the orange portal gun. In level 11, players are required to quickly shoot a portal through the door near the ceiling after opening it with a button. At least twenty minutes went by before Will figured this out. He failed to learn this skill two levels previous.
In my observations, players were learning all of the time, sometimes blatantly so. While playing level 10, Noah exclaimed: "Oh! you can make portals in the floor. Oh! that's what they just showed me on the picture." Level 14: "Lines show you a door is over there!" and when he solved the puzzle: "I figured it out. I'd forgot about my power fling." Level 16: "This is a hard level. It's a new element." But perhaps most revelatory, Noah said in Level 7: "Can't I just use the skills I already learned?"

My friend Will is a longtime console gamer, but this was basically his first PC game. Like Noah, he frequently verbalized his thought-process (NSFW): "You cant do anything with black tiles. They suck balls." Level 9: "You just have to put it right through that conveniently box-shaped hole," (making mistakes is learning, too).In the same presentation as above, at the Nordic Game Jam, Jonathon Blow discusses a game called Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much, a graphically-simple, avatar-based puzzle game. This game, like Portal and The Marriage, teaches players how to play through gameplay.
And so these aren't really puzzles yet, right? Despite the fact that they're not challenging, they're interesting to the player. Because I'm seeing new things. I'm learning new things as I proceed through the game. So it doesn't have to be challenging yet, even though its a puzzle game.....that's all the game mechanics. It showed you each one, one at a time, and then it shows you how to combine them together, all in something that's not hard to figure out...It should be intuitive but also compelling. I play so many games where they have a really boring tutorial at the beginning. And I'm like 'Ah! I just want to skip through this and get to the real thing.' That was the real thing, but it was also teaching me about it.
The most difficult level in Portal, and most critical to understanding the game, is unquestionably level 3. Players need to know two things. One of these things they have already taught themselves: go through blue portal makes come out orange portal. The other skill, however, is not so obvious: you can walk through orange portals, and, doing so will take you to blue ones. Sounds obvious, I know. But that's because we've already played the game. It took one android subject at least fifteen minutes to solve this. Up until this point, we always traveled through blue portals, never orange. Its almost subliminal.

Confusing description? About Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much, Blow makes another, very revelatory statement: "I don't even know if I would have understood that if he tried to explain it in words. But in gameplay its so simple. You touch the wall and it moves."

Portal has a guideline structure. Players walk a path of self-learning. But the path is not entirely scripted, there is room for diversion and play, for players to have a little breathing room during their learning. Players assume a distinct gameplay style in the test chambers. In fact, Portal acted as an outlet for players to express themselves however they pleased. Noah was curious, inquisitive, and excited about everything in Portal, like in real life. For Mike, the test chambers were like a playground; Mike was playful with his new Portal gun-toy and was most interested in exploring its limitations and the limitations of the world around him. Also like in real life. Mike was actually an interesting player to watch simply because he is really, really intelligent. Honestly, Portal was too easy for Mike; he solved every level instantly. After creating infinite loops with a wall camera, Mike finally sighed, "I guess I should go to the next level." This statement is indicative of so much. To Mike, Portal was not challenging. Mike wasn't interested in performing something he knew he could achieve. Mike was more interested in discovering other things about the game, like infinite loops (shame on you Mike coughjavacough), and how far he has to fall to die, and how portals do not affect momentum. Will was quite the opposite. Like usual, he just wanted to swear a lot in frustration. "Portal? Portal can sucka my balls."
Aperture Science is players teaching themselves how to use a set of tools. Aperture Science is a guideline by which players teach themselves skills. But aperture science isn't directly applicable to every game. I would argue the opposite, in fact. Portal's aperture science, as with The Marriage and Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much, functions well because the entire game was designed alongside the teaching style. Good game design requires synergy. Aperture Science cannot be shoehorned into every game we make. A teaching system, like any aspect of game design, must work with other aspects of the game, harmoniously. I played part-way through Call of Duty 4 recently, and even it began with a fairly short tutorial level. But its tutorial was fun, a training session. It worked for the game.

Like many other gameplay systems, aperture science is just another example of a tutorial system. But its a system that works well when implemented correctly. Portal is a fun game. Portal offers a constant stream of new challenges and puzzles for players to solve. Players are always having fun because the challenge flows parallel to their competence.

Aperture Science
ap-er-cher sahy-uhns
-noun
1. The learning of new skills.
2. The process by which new skills are taught to players.
3. A guideline for players to teach themselves gameplay skills, restrictions, limitations, and boundaries.

Synonyms: conveyance, player-learning

images from Valve and Rod Humble.
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