Tuesday, February 26

Developing Game Design: Counterpoint

GameSpot recently interviewed Will Wright, head of Maxis. The video interview is below.

At one point, just before the 5:00 marker, GameSpot asks Wright, "What do you wish you could change about the game industry?" Wright answers:
I think the game industry is starting to take the path of the television industry where its getting very risk adverse. Part of that is that development budgets are getting so incredibly expensive that it feels so risky to take a chance on something nobody has ever seen before. People today instead chase genres. You know whatever the best selling game was last year, everybody says we want World of Warcraft, or whatever it was, this year people want a better version of that.

If you actually go back historically and look at what the big games were every year, they were usually big games because they were well done, well-tuned and polished, etc. and they also had a certain amount of, kind of, novelty, relative to things that were preceeding them. So, chasing the last big thing, in some sense is, you know, while it might lower your downside, you're never going to capture your upside that made them a big hit in the first place.

So, I think that's probably the biggest danger right now, is that, because of the budgets, people tend towards that risk adverse, and it tends to kind of squash innovation. But occasionaly, I think we're starting to see now, the type of people that are playing games, the type of games that we're playing, we're starting to see things like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, the Wii, games that are really different than what preceeded them, and they're, for the most part, enjoying great success, which is, you know, in some sense feels like the second or third renaissance of gaming because of that.
You can see how this directly relates to yesterday's post. And I think I agree with Wright, too. Looking at games as a business, incremental development makes sense. Publishers want to make money on something thats a proven success. Looking at games as an artform, however, perhaps such reliance makes things stale. Hence, genres (again). But I think there is a balance. We can have the best of both worlds. We can innovate from the successful. There is always learning to be done. So when good game design comes around, like Portal, for example, we can observe the design. What makes the design good? Why do we like it? Then we need to stop. We need to sit out for a minute, reflect, reconsider, look at things from a new angle. Then we can use our various perspectives and knowledge and apply them to something new. The danger is relying too heavily on proven games, like a crutch. But if all we do is rely on this crutch then we'll never learn to walk without it. We need to be progressive to realize that, though this crutch is what taught us how to walk in one way, we will learn from it, and develop an entirely new and better way to walk.

Monday, February 25

Developing Game Design

The other day, I recieved a message from my friend with a link to a flash game. The message's subject line read, "An interesting Portal rip-off." The game in question was SHIFT, designed by Antony Levell for Armor Games. Incedentally, I had already played Shift the previous night, but what intrigued me was my friend's chosen tagline: "Portal Rip-off."

Please make sure you play through Shift before reading on.

Unquestionably, Shift does share similar design to Portal, the likeness especially obvious given certain in-game refrences. But is it a rip-off? I would argue not. In fact, Shift is an extremely high quality game supported by excellent design. Shift is cool, fun, challenging, thought-provoking, all tradmarks of good design. We can, however, immediately percieve the Portal influence. Where Portal is designed around a single principle of gameplay, so too is Shift. Portal has players using a gun to solve puzzles. Shift has players flipping a level to solve puzzles. The problem is, "rip-off" comes with too many connotations. Shift is more so inspired by Portal, and that is a good thing.

Game design is like anything else in this world: its a process. The art of painting isn't revolutionized every day, nor is cinematography, nor is game design; all of these evolve as art forms incrementally. Artists learn from one another, we look at what has been done and see how it was done and what was good and what was not so good, and we iterate. Hence, genres. Game design, like other mediums, is influenced by its own creations. The fact is, Portal has been hugely influential to game design. The game exemplies the core of what makes games fun: learning through experience, excellent balance of difficulty, simplicity. In a way, our industry needed Portal. In a time of insular design, Portal proved to be an elegant example of the beauty of video games. And therefore, a cornerstone of modern game design.

Which brings us back to Shift. Shift was designed using the same philosophy behind Portal. The developers of Shift clearly appreciated Portal's design, and more importantly, learned from it. This is what we're doing as game designers, and as an industry, learning. There's nothing wrong with learning, its beautiful. Does every game need to be a revolution, an utter innovation? No; thats not the way things work. We build. We learn from experience. We take the blueprints of successful game design and resketch them, improve them. We are developing the artform. Our goal is to contribute to that development, to push ourselves to push forward the medium.

Another example very similar in vein is Fez, the winner for Excellence in Visual Design at the Independent Games Festival at the 2008 the Game Developer's Conference. Fez is being developed by Kokoromi for Xbox Live Arcade using the XNA development tools. Fez is an original title, but its gameplay is not unique.

Look familiar? It should. The primary gameplay mechanic is an iteration of Nintendo's Super Paper Mario and Zoe Mode's Crush. All three of these game function off a similar principle, that of 2d/3d perspective switching. In Super Paper Mario, players can flip the world to look up and down a three-dimensional hallway angle of a level. In Crush, players can flatten the world into two-dimensions either as a side-scroller or top-down. The world of Fez can be fully rotated three-dimensionally to reveal new platforming pathways.
Zoe Mode's Crush, for PSP.
Fez is awesome. Watching the gameplay trailer, I was consistently amazed at how cool and fun it looked. The style is similar to games by Nifflas' (a good thing, to be sure), but suddenly, a whole dimension is revealed, and the game becomes something else entirely. Fez's similarity to Super Paper Mario and Crush is undeniable, but this is not a bad thing. Fez is designed off a relatively new gameplay mechanic, but not staticly. Kokoromi is using this perspective switch mechanism, but developing it further, advancing it. What we are in danger of is designing games that are the same as previous titles. Designing games built on solid, effective gameplay principles, and expanding upon them, improving them, innovating, is what we want to do. Development is a process, a progression. In fact, Dictionary.com defines development as the "act of improving by expanding or enlarging or refining." Rome wasn't built in a day. Innovation doesn't happen overnight. Learn from other games. Its not stealing; its saying "Thank you for being so awesome. Let me try and do even better."

Images from Gamespy
Trailer from Gametrailers

Tuesday, February 12

By Force or Design, Cont.

IGN recently interviewed Burnout Paradise Lead Designer Craig Sullivan. One question was specifically relevent to the latest post here at Invisible Studio so I decided to post it.

IGN: There was a lot of talk about the game's open world design and lack of an instant retry option. While we missed it at first, it did encourage us to approach the game differently and helped to make the play experience unique to the title. But given that there are certainly gamers who would have appreciated to see it in there, do you still think its exclusion was still the right thing to do?

Sullivan: Exploration and discovery is a core part of the experience and we designed everything around that. An open world game gives designers a real challenge when compared to level based games – when the player can go anywhere and do anything, how do you deal with issues such as navigation, retry and so on. We decided to tackle this challenge head on, rather than do what other open world games have done to date which is to resort to conventions from level based games such as chevrons, arrows and retry options.

We wanted players to learn the city as fast as possible, because we wanted to get rid of outdated concepts like chevrons and big arrows on the screen. If you teleport around the world all the time, you never get to learn it like you do a real place. If you just follow an arrow everywhere, you do not get to recognize a certain road or a certain turn. Also, we wanted to put distraction gameplay in the game and encourage people to do a real variety of events. This is the reason you have to hunt, pursue and takedown cars to earn them. You have to learn this city, get a feel for it, before you take on other people in races. If there was one way we would suggest people play to enjoy the game more it would be to just explore and not get hung up on finishing the game as fast as possible, by doing event after event.

We spent a long time on this challenge and what we have done absolutely breaks convention – which puts us out there in the firing line. Some will love it, but for them to love it others must loath it. That's the beauty of entertainment.


Saturday, February 2

By Force or Design?

I got a call from my brother the other day. He said he'd recently spent alot of time playing the Burnout Paradise demo. He said, "Finn, did you know you can't restart races." I replied that I was aware of the fact. For those who don't know, Burnout Paradise is a free-roaming driving game by Criterion. Players can drive anywhere in paradise city and do as they please. The racing structure is found at intersections, where players can initiate various racing events. Speaking on the phone with my brother, he explained that once you begin a race, you can only restart it by returning to the starting-line intersection. It should also be pointed out that players are not locked into any event that they begin. If players see something that interests them while racing, they are free to just drive away from the event and consequently drop-out, albeit willingly.

My brother took issue with this, what he called, "restriction." He asked me, "Is it ok for a game to force you to do something? Is it right to force players to play a certain way." He had a valid point. Burnout Paradise has a very specific and intentional design. Every aspect (or not) of the game is intended to support the overall open-world design. Criterion really wants players to play Burnout Paradise in a certain way. But I mean this is a good way; I think the notion is admirable, in fact. You see, Burnout Paradise is not a traditional racing game, its a sandbox game. What Criterion is really doing is asking players to let go of their expectations. You are not playing Need for Speed, you're not playing Project Gotham, you're not even playing Burnout, at least not in its earlier incarnations. Burnout Paradise is a beast all to its own. Criterion is asking players to accept a new type of game before even picking up the controller. They're asking you to dash your expectations for what a racing game is and play Burnout Paradise for what itself offers.Now, this sandbox type game has actually been done before, in a few ways. Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Midnight Club, and what I think most closely resembles Pardise, Rush 2. But Burnout Paradise arrives with a new generation of consoles and gamers, and more importantly, it really is different from all of the above.

The non-restart system is indicative of the entire game's design. Burnout Paradise has non-linear gameplay. The races themselves are mostly non-linear and the open-world is certainly non-linear. However, by not allowing players to restart a race, Criterion is literally forcing players to play a certain way. Now here is the real quesion: Is it ok to force players to do something just because you want them to play a certain way? Is it ok to restrict their playstyle?
I would argue, yes. This is what we do as game designers. We request players to assume specific playstyles all the time. You want to restart the race? Too fricken' bad. Adapt. Criterion is asking alot of players, and at the same time, they're really not asking much. Burnout Paradise wants you to have an open-mind. If you approach the game with certain expectations, like being able to restart, you will inevitably dislike the game. This is what my brother told me, "It is impossible to enjoy Burnout Paradise immediately, you have to play for at least three hours to finally realize the game's fun."

Ah! There it is! Criterion is saying "We want you to have fun. Trust us. Just give us a couple of hours and you will learn how to have fun within our world." So, is it right to force players to play a certain way? Heck yes. You need to have confidence in the fun in your game. You also need to ease them into your new playstyle, but thats a different matter altogether. Burnout Paradise is all about having fun in the moment. Fun is all around you, just explore a bit and you will find it. You won't be so disappointed about losing a race and not being able to restart because their is more fun to be had right in front of your eyes. In a way the game is even catering to our ADD generation.A final question: Would Burnout Paradise be more fun if it allowed you to restart races? Would the option detract from overall design? I think it would. I can gurantee that if players had the option to restart a race, 99% of the time they would. And then what? And then the game wouldn't be what it is. It would lose its open-world effect, and devolve into something more like a hub-world for a bunch of races. And thats no fun.

Burnout Paradise is innovative. In writing this rather rantesque article, I've come up with a definition of innovative game design. Innovative is asking players to let go of their expectations for what a game is. Innovative is breaking lose from the status-quo to becoming something different, something more than just convention. Innovative is saying, "We're not going to let things like genres decide what our game is going to be. We're not going to give in to give in to a predetermined definition of fun. We know what fun is. We're going to make that fun and give the players something they don't even know they want yet. That is innovative."