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
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.
Digg Me. Devbump Me.

Tuesday, August 5

Best Trailers of E3 2008

Hi everybody. E3 has come again yet again. And, as usual, so have many, many game trailers. I'm a big fan of video game trailers; watching them is one of my favorite past times. I really appreciate when a trailer hypes you up for a game. In concordance with this, here are what I think are the Best Trailers of E3 2008. The trailers are also sometimes representative of my most anticipated games. I would encourage you to watch the following trailers (in HD at the link if you've got a nice screen) and other trailers from these games at their respective game pages at Game Trailers.

Be sure to tell us what your favorite trailers are in the comments.

Without further ado, here we go (in no particular order).

Mirror's Edge

Prince of Persia


Street Fighter IV


Animal Crossing: City Folk
"lunch-scarfing time already?"

this game is simply beautiful.

Left 4 Dead
Left 4 Dead is going to be so, much, fun. Be sure to watch all three parts of the walkthrough.