Thursday, January 31

Warhawk Racing and Creativity

I don't think anyone was labeling Warhawk as "a sandbox game" when it was released last fall. And yet here we are. Marketed more so as a venue for online dogfights, Warhawk quickly fell into its intended gameplay role. And rightly so. Modeled after the proven Battlefield formula, Warhawk is an expertly-crafted playground of team-based warfare. But, as they say (not really), opportunity is the mother of invention. Where there is freedom, there is creativity. And gamers are some of the most creative people I know of. Warhawk Racing perfectly exemplifies this creativity.

Warhawk Racing was founded by a trio of hardcore Warhawk players: Fur0shus, Killudead, and gaming4HIM. Co-founder Killudead explains his enthusiasm for the game: "I am normally not interested in MMOs or online games. But with Warhawk, there are so many variations of the game. Maybe you want to fly today, or maybe you like the tank. The game is never the same, and with so many players, it can be exciting." This was also the impetus for Warhawk Racing. "The idea to race within the levels was to create some other meaning behind the game, something other what it was designed for," Killudead explains.

The story of Warhawk Racing began when founder Fur0shus (PSN Id), or PIE_Lover on the PlayStation forums, first saw a video of players racing 4x4's around Archipelago. "I saw the video and knew it had the potential to be something much more than that," Fur0shus said. Soon after, Fur0shus hosted a Jeep race of his own, using the PlayStation forums to spread the word. He explains, "The race was great, but not too organized. After that race, I immediately started work on a second, more organized race with many tracks and a practice date. The people involved absolutely loved it. That second race was the final test, and after, the PIE racing league was launched."

Though still developing, Warhawk Racing is now a long-term operation, including website and official racing league. The triumvirate behind the project, Fur0shus, Killudead, and gaming4HIM, divide their responsibilities to run a clean, organized program. gaming4HIM explains: "Killudead runs the website, Fur0shus handles the league details and in game things, and I, gamin4HIM, usually write stuff for the Internet. BUT all three of us also work together and we work together on everything."

The project is quite impressive. The PIE Racing League is currently comprised of twenty-four players, with room for six more. The league hosts official races for its members wherein points are distributed for a robust ranking system. Even racers placing last earn a point, just for participating. Most impressively, PIE understands that people have lives that can sometimes conflict with racing; players are not penalized for not showing up to a race, they just miss out on free points.

Warhawk Racing itself is also highly developed, complete with a full set of rules backed by intriguing design. "Many people have been very open to the idea of Warhawk Racing, but people only really get hooked on it when they race firsthand," Fur0shus said. Because Warhawk Racing is built off of an existing engine, the triumvirate was limited in their design of the game. But, sometimes, limitation is good; in fact, boundaries can even stimulate creativity. Fur0shus explains: "I always remind myself that games are meant to be fun, and when playing by the rules gets boring, you might just have to invent your own rules to play by."

The golden rule of Warhawk Racing is “If you can’t catch ‘em, You crash ‘em." This sums up the entire racing design. Their are three types of tracks, or racing modes, so to speak. "Circuit" and "1 Lap Long" has ten racers hop into ten different jeeps and race simultaneously around a predetermined track. The only rules are don't start early, don't cut corners, and if you die you are automatically disqualified. All jeeps are equal, so winning comes down to being the best of the pack. The third race type is "Drag," where players race between two points on a map, but must also pass through designated checkpoints along the way. Your biggest enemy in Warhawk Racing isn't the other players though, but the track itself. Given limited control, the triumvirate had to find something they could work with, some aspect of the game that allowed for fun racing. The key to the design is the track layout.
The track layout for Island Outpost.

Killudead said that, "Initially, the track layout was simple, run from one main base to the other and back." But this was not good enough. Fur0shus explains designing the track layouts:
I designated an entire day to practicing and choosing the track order. I had by myself come up with 18 unique track designs (3 tracks for each map). On practice day I took a small group of people along each track in a certain map, and after all the tracks in that map were completed, we all voted on the one we thought was:
A) The most fun to drive on overall.
B) The hardest to drive on, making catching up to the first place driver easier.

gaming4HIM elaborates: "On Destroyed Capital, we added a track through the rumble path and went all the way around the outermost part of the track instead of cutting in. This gave it a chance for minimal passing and real skill of the driver to be shown." And this is really the crux of Warhawk Racing; players with the best knowledge of the track layout and most driving skill win. The design is intelligent; since all vehicles are equal, if one vehicle gets ahead there is no means players have to catch back up (such as boost). The track layout was designed specifically to add complexity and challenge to the race, and, ultimately, fun.

Another nifty touch of Warhawk Racing is the dropship, available with the Warhawk: Omega Dawn expansion. Fur0shus explains:
One of the drivers in our race was helping put jeeps on the starting line via the dropship, and decided to stay in to watch the race from the sky. It worked out well because it can hold the cameraman as a driver and 6 other spectators who can watch from the sky. Before the dropship, the cameraman was in a warhawk and to make sure the camera view was not obstructed, no one else was allowed to fly a warhawk. The dropship solves this problem by giving the spectators an easy way to watch the race and stay out of the cameraman’s way.
The best part of all of this is the creativity that has emerged. Warhawk was not designed to be a racing game. But inventive players took the reins of the games' freedom and have developed a truly unique intragame. gaming4HIM said that, "There are some of the people that are 'points, points, points, points' and so they do not care about this and don’t like it. But I think that everyone needs to take a little break and do something out of the box and out of the ordinary."

Fur0shus said, "I really enjoy these types of open “sandbox” type games, where you can be free to do almost anything you can dream up. These types of games encourage me to be creative and try and find a new way to play the game. It is especially fun to take a shooter style game and turn it into something with no violent content at all, like we did with this jeep racing game."

I asked Fur0shus about other potential upcoming racing variants, like boat racing, flying, or demolition derbys, but all he had to say was, "Just remember, the website is not '' Give it about a month and you will get all sorts of new styles of racing, I guarantee it."

See the Official Warhawk Racing website for more information and league registration.

Friday, January 18

Rainbow Six Vegas 2 Reward System

The following video discuss the reward systems behind Rainbow Six Vegas 2.

Pretty crazy huh? Allow me to break it down for you.

Persistent Elite Creation
PEC was part of the first Rainbow Six Vegas, and in Rainbow Six: Lockdown before that. But the system has changed quite a bit for Vegas 2. PEC allows players to create a uniquely aesthetic character while also allowing for personalization of gear and weapons load-out. A big change from the original Vegas is that PEC and all other reward systems will carry across all game modes, both offline and on. Playing any mode of the game will benefit players' characters. As R6V2 designer Phillip Therein said, "Every action, every objective, and every victory will earn you a reward."

There are actually a couple of different progression systems that all kind of work together. The first is Experience Points. Players earn XP simply by playing the game. The examples for gaining XP Therien gave were killing enemies and even reaching checkpoints. The bottom of the HUD will now include an XP bar that fills as you play, much like an MMO. This is a key aspect of the design. The idea is constant positive reinforcement; simply filling the XP bar is a constant reward. Therefore, the reward system is also a constant source of motivation and fun, on top of the more core shooting elements. Each time the XP bar fills, players gain another rank, unlocking new visual enhancments for their characters.People like progression. Xbox 360 Achievements are successful to no end. And Blizzard has mastered the reward system; there is a reason Diablo II and World of Warcraft are so popular, and fun. Ah, success. You can almost taste it.

Additionally, Ubisoft has broadened the reward system across all play modes, a simple, but genius design decision. Successful reward systems make players feel like their getting somewhere, like their progressing both in the game, and as players, as people. Thats why a good reward system is such a successful design element. It taps into a rudimentary truth of humanity, getting somewhere, progressing in life. When player's characters progress, the players themselves feel like their accomplishing something as well. Reward systems offer something not present in many games, something to show for your time. Players feel like they are earning something more tangible, acheiving more for their efforts. And we haven't even discussed the other half of the reward system.Avanced Combat Enhancement Specialization
ACES are rewards for "performing tactical actions." These are broken down into three categories. Which category players earn experience for depends on the actions players perform. The XP bar is the same, and players earn XP for their bar no matter what they do, but depending on specific actions, XP will be alloted towards one of the three categories. The three categories as are follows:

Close Quarters:
Players earn points in the close quarters category for performing close range kills (kills at less than 7 meters), and using flash bangs and smoke grenades effectively. Specifically, players will earn points for "killing a visually impaired opponent."

Assault points come from multi-kills, killing with C4 and frag grenades, and other actions. Like "killing throuch cover."

Players earn marksmanship points for headshots, long-range kills (more than 25 meters), killing while using a rope, killing an opponent who is using a rope, and killing a sprinter.The categories come in levels as well. The reward for completing ACES levels unlocks weapons associated with the category in which you leveled-up. For example, performing marksmanship actions will earn experience in the markmanship category, which, upon completing levels, will unlock assault rifles or sniper rifles.The reward system in Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is similar to skill-based reward discussed early, about Jungle Beat. However, this reward system almost goes beyond being skill-based, reason being players are rewarded for doing almost anything. Still, there are intracacies. Earning points in specific categories will require specific gameplay maneuvers. But what Vegas 2 is doing above all is rewarding players for playing the way they want. Snipers will naturally earn points in the markmanship category, and therefore unlock weapons which serve their gameplay style best. Players who like to use the shotgun will eventually earn better and better shotguns simply by doing what they do best.

The reward system in Vegas 2 is top-notch. It does everything it is supposed to: Rewards players for playing skillfully. Rewards players for playing the way they want with gameplay additions that suit their play-style. And, most importantly, rewards players constantly.

Diablo ii

Assassin Pwns

Monday, January 14

Neo Tetris

Tetris is a classic, it can't be denied. It has spawned a variety of sequals and imitators, some good, others probably not so good. New variants of Tetris will continue to exist with every generation, the game is just that good. I've got a few new Tetris games for you today, they're all pretty nifty.

The first is unnamed, but we'll call it Java Blocks. I call it such because, A, the game is made with Java, not Flash. And, B, its not exactly Tetris, more like "Negatris," or something. You'll see what I mean when you play the game. The game is by one Gary Haran, a guy that mainly deals with coding and the interwebs. You can read about the game at his blog.

The second game is Tetrical. It's Insane! Think Tetris in three dimensions. The game is basically impossible to play unless your some spatially reasoning genius. Still, the design is pretty interesting and the game is really solid. Check it out. Tetrical is by Digitial Machina.

Which brings me to the last game of the day, Cubical, also by Digital Machina. Cubical is like a simpler version of Tetrical, and arguably a better game. While the design of Tetrical is more novel, an homage, Cubical actually sports some solid gameplay. Players are tasked with stacking various box sizes into a three-dimensional pit. Once you grasp the controls the game boils down to accuracy of block placement. It's pretty fun.


Sunday, January 13

"Putting The Person Back Into First-Person"

Every once in a while an awesome game will slip past my radar; which is rare considering my keen sixth-sense for gaming knowledge. But never did I expect a game this awesome to pass by unnoticed. DICE is currently working on a couple of titles. One is Battlefield: Bad Company, the third/fourth installment in the Battlefield franchise. The other is a little-known game for PC, PS3, and 360, called Mirror's Edge.

Mirror's Edge, to be blunt, looks amazing. And not just graphically, though that too. DICE's new game is designed around an innovative, often ignored aspect of first-person games: the first person perspective itself. Truth be told, this is something that has always bothered me about first-person games, 99% of which are shooters. First-person-shooters are more so from the perspective of the gun than the person; at most players get a glimpse of the wrist. While there is nothing wrong with this in itself, you'd think more games would break out of the traditional first-person-shooter mold and try something new. Well, now they have. And its about time.

Mirror's Edge is an example of gameplay elements working in tandem. Always a beautiful thing to see. The game's take on the first-person perspective, the likes of which not seen since Ubisoft's canceled Killing Day, is not simply for aesthetic purposes, but wholely necessary for gameplay. Another de-emphasized aspect of most first-person-shooters is movement. Generally, players can strafe and jump short heights. But thats about it. Mirror's Edge, on the other hand, is all about movement, or, more aptly, motion. Taking a cue from Assassin's Creed, the focus of Mirror's Edge is parkour, or "the art of moving through your environment using only your body and the surroundings to propel yourself."

As you run, you can see your arms swing in rhythm with your gait and your feet kick out as they hit the pavement. Players are in the eyes of the protagonist, not the gun. Though this may seem confusing or dizzying, the effect is likely quite natural and smooth. What's fascinating is that, though given a limited framing of our character's body, we are able to interpolate the rest of the body's position, given our experience with the first-person perspective (aka, our whole lives). Or at least thats how it seems to me. I haven't actually seen the game in motion. But I have faith.
Speaking of which, players assume the role of a "runner," named Faith, tasked with delivering intel throughout a utopian futuristic city. Propelling you through the levels are enemies at your heels, forcing you to stay moving. Fortunately, you have at your disposal a handy-dandy firearm with which to dispose of your foes. But unlike many other first-person-shooters, fire fights in Mirror's Edge aren't slowly paced pain-staking stake-outs; the emphasis is constant movement, so even the act of shooting will match the deliberation of running. "Run N' Gun" has a whole new meaning. The city itself is highly sanitary and brightly colored, making not only for nice and simple running environments, but representative of story themes as well. The writer of the Edge preview explains:
There’s a sense of underlying menace that is perfectly communicated by the city’s sterile perfection, an austerity compounded by the splashes of primary colour, which begin to look like transparent attempts to enliven a world that is emotionally dead, its diversity stifled, its people subjected to draconian unity of thought and behaviour.
Aside from thematic issues, the simplicity of the game environment is not only appealing but also conducive to gameplay.

Sidebar: Everything Should Be Conducive To Gameplay!

The artistic style is reminscent of Portal and Team Fortress 2, simplistic geometry and a small, bright color palette, designed to work in tandem with the parkour elements. The game moves at a fast pace. The whole point is to run through a city quickly; so the environment and level design need to work in conjunction with the game's speed. And here is what is so amazing. I'll just quote the section. First quotation from Senior Producer Owen O’Brien; post-line break continuation, the article's editor.
“We wanted to get that feel into the game, seeing the world as a she would see it; stripping out everything except that which would be important to her. We want the player to move through the world very quickly, and we want the player to know what their options are. All the things that are important to you will pop out.”

Potential paths and objects that Faith can use to propel herself through the environment are indicated with vibrant splashes of primary colour. Routes that will lead to certain death tend to be marked with shadow, while safe paths are illuminated, giving the player an instinctive sense of how to navigate the perilous rooftop paths without having to stop and check ahead.
I just love that. Good game design is so awesome. Whether or not safety in regards to light and darkness is instinctive is debatable. However, the use of light and darkness as a highly-effective principle of gameplay is genius. Running through environments at an intentionally quick pace requires necissarily guided pathways. Not a big arrow in the center of the screen pointing the correct direction, but subtely, like, oh, I don't know, lighting. Otherwise players are guaranteed to run off the edge and have to restart from a checkpoint of some sort and memorize each level via trial and error. Which, again, is actually ok for some games, but is bound to suck away the fun in short order. Trial and error is still likely to play a role in Mirror's Edge, however, but more so from player error than game; this isn't gouls and ghosts. And player error is an ok thing. The learning process is unquestionably one of the greatest aspects of video games.

Back to lighting. Think of the lighting ques as the dashed yellow line along the road. In a racing game, just because you know a road is going to turn a certain way doesn't mean you're going to make the turn without hitting a wall. Lighting conveys necessary gameplay information to players quickly; players will, presumably, be able to discern which route to travel very quickly. Running the wrong way is no fun.Light design will work in two, subtle ways. It will cue players to run in a certain direction while simultaneously allowing them to feel they are actively deciding their course of movement. And they are. You could run into darkness but who knows what monsters lurk beyond the lights glare.

Mirror's Edge looks really cool. I can't wait to get some more information on the game. Everything in this preview was deduced from Edge's excellent preview and the unnofficial fansite, On Mirror's Edge. Go read the preview for some more stuff I didn't cover. Like control, and slow motion, and really cool concept diagrams. All good stuff. I'm also pretty excited to see a fansite already up and running, check out their forums for some more focused discussion.