Friday, September 30, 2011

Designer Notebook: Inverted control

For those who don't know, Inverted Controls is the idea that the look/move operation is done inversely to the control input. Some have likened it to the idea of a camera rig, where pushing upwards is pointing the camera downwards. It's not a control scheme for everyone, but once you're stuck with one, it's very hard to unlearn it. Tons of people also debate about the validity of it, as if it's some sort of crazy holy war where one side is correct: both are valid, stop bitching, and just live with it.

People are usually surprised that I use inverted control (apparently most console gamers don't), I guess my early exposures to PC Flight sims (and an unhealthy amount of Independence Day) have really trained me to think that way (sidenote: I use normal for PC shooters, don't know why, but it makes more sense to me). Yet sometimes this causes issues in games that I want to play.

The recently released Splinter Cell HD caused quit a bit of outrage as the game didn't support inverted controls, and I know I won't even bother giving the game a chance unless it's patched in. In a game where looking and shooting are essential, I know I will be infinitely frustrated by the fact that I will fumble more on the control than the mechanics themselves.

Another example: I was trying out the Yar's Revenge demo, a third person shooter where you control both the aiming reticule and the craft. The game supported an invert aim option, but I was still messing up as I always end up jamming the craft to the bottom of the screen. The lack of invert option for both craft and aiming might seem like pointless whining, but that was the dealbreaker that prevented me from buying the game.

Game designers should be very concerned about this. Sure, you may find the controls acceptable, but offering the option so that other people can play it seems like an obvious no-brainer. I recall a conversation I once had with a designer who will not be named who said "inverted is stupid", and "people who use it are retarded". Huh. Way to think about your potential customer.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On My Mind: Design: Art or Science (Abridged Version)

It's been a while since this topic was mentioned and I forgot where or why it popped up, but I felt compelled to write something about it. I recall being asked a few times whether design is an art or a science, and I'm sure you've all seen the endless debates on which one is correct or more important. So I might as well throw in my two cents here:


(Thanks Adam.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

On My Mind: Design: Art or Science

It's been a while since this topic was mentioned and I forgot where or why it popped up, but I felt compelled to write something about it. I recall being asked a few times whether design is an art or a science, and I'm sure you've all seen the endless debates on which one is correct or more important. So I might as well throw in my two cents here:

Why does it have to be a binary choice? Design should be both art and science. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn't doing their job properly.

(Note: I'm going to put a few pictures to get my point across: I'm not saying these are bad games, in fact, I actually liked these games a lot...)

Design is Artistic: any designer who tells otherwise are terrible designers who would only make cookie cutter, boiler plate ideas that caters to no one but a spreadsheet.

Sometimes, a game can still get by with just the bare minimum, hitting all the bullet points that people expect to have in a video game: Oh, it has online multiplayer; Oh it has co-op; Oh it has a ranking system, etc... But then is this really a game, or merely another manufactured clone of something else you would have rather played? It's especially worse when you realized this game you're playing has all the parts lifted directly from another game. Sure, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but you have to ask whether the people on the other end really cared about the product they're making.

I liken a game designed on paper as something without a soul: Sure, it may be technically competent and without fault, but it comes off bland and manufactured. Even as the game conveys emotions through it's characters or setting, it feels so contrived that you can already tell that the designers looked at "the demographic of the audience" and planned their game around it.

You may or may not like where EA as a company is right now, but a long time ago, they had put out an ad with the headline "Can a Computer Make You Cry?"

I'm not sure if they had made that question their vision back then, but I think it's a pretty noble goal even today. If a game isn't there to create player emotion, then you might as well be just doing your everyday menial tasks (and grinding out your level caps). Other "entertainment medium" elicit emotions like joy, fear, sadness and anger; if games are about entertainment, then they should strive to do the same, which means staying away from designing strictly from a mechanical standpoint.


Design is Scientific: any designer who tells you otherwise are terrible designers who wouldn't understand player feedback when someone tell them the game "isn't fun to play".

Until very recently, the more artistic endeavours from the likes of Suda51 (Killer 7, Shadows of the Damned, pictured bottom) and Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Every Extend Extra Extreme, pictured below) were a rarity in gaming. Their games often have flaws, but still receive high praises for their creative look compared other games outside. However, typically, the games always suffer from terrible sales, driving publishers away.

The quick and dirty answer that everyone can understand is that these games are going to be harder to market: People want comfort food, they want games they are familiar with, and huge deviations can scare people away. In some sense, it's why "Scary Movie" is a summer blockbuster: people like the familiarity, even if it's unoriginal, forced and manufactured.

However, another cause I like to point out is getting proper, 'scientific' feedback. A lot of times, you'll see some of these games commit the most obvious mistakes, as if no one actually played through them. Sure, the creative process is sometimes about 'gut feeling', putting in what feels natural and makes sense, but other times, doing proper 'scientific research' can yield much more favourable, more refined experience. It's the difference between "I think this weapon should have 0.5 seconds to reload" vs "Our test shows that 0.5 seconds is too long and players are not choosing the weapon".

Take Limbo (pictured above) for example: while the game is about trying and dying, and the player's journey through the experience, there were a handful of places where the only way players will get by if they've died multiple times to learn what not to do. Sure, it may be the experience that the developers intended to give, but it's sure to alienate players who are frustrated with such mechanic (and goes against the idea of games as a mastery of skill, not mastery of guessing what the developer wants you to do). There were points in the game where you see obvious attempts at placing hints to show players what can happen, and I wonder if those sections were even more difficult before proper testing and feedback.

In fact, if you were to analyze Suda51's last few games, you'll realize that his games have gotten better and better at smoothing out the rough edges yet still retaining some of his absurd ideas. You put Killer7 and Shadows of the Damned next to each other, and you can still tell it's from the same creators, but Shadows clearly have had more refinement in terms of managing and meeting players expectation. In a third person shooter, people expect fluid, direct control (Shadows), not point and click wonky interface (Killer7). Some would argue that Suda's games have gotten more bland as of result, but as a tradeoff for a more playable game that reaches a wider audience? I think it's a decent tradeoff.


Personally, I know that I tend to favour the scientific side of doing things. If I can get all the info about how people are playing my game, why wouldn't I take it to improve up on it? Yet I understand that design should not be entirely based around player feedback, and sometimes it's worth it to go against what is expected to make a more interesting idea work. I hope other designers would take a look at where they fit in that spectrum, and be mindful of how they look at the other side when they create stuff.

Friday, September 16, 2011

On my Mind: Emergence Gameplay

One of the most talked about "new" ideas in game design in recent years has been "Emergent Gameplay". In short, it is the idea of gameplay behaviour based on the rules and mechanics established by the game. While emergent gameplay were often unintentional, there is a strong focus today for designers to "plan out" ways to allow emergent gameplay to happen.

Sometimes, these ideas are entirely planned out: take for example, NBA Jam in contrast to traditional basketball games:

The hot spot mechanic changed the way people would focus on scoring: instead of taking open shots, players would risk for the more dangerous and covered 8 or even 20 pointer. Basically, people evaluated the risk/reward factor and decided that it's worth the risk.

Some notable examples of unintentional emergent gameplay include things like Rocket Jump in FPS games, or combos in fighters (first done as an error in Street Fighter).

So, what happens when emergent gameplay creates oddities like this:

Well, let's explain a little of what's going on here first: In Gears 2 (Hence the "emergence" title, HARHARHAR), there's a XP ranking system that allows you to earn extra character skins in Gears 2/3. The XP system is based on points obtained within all the multiplayer modes, giving out different rewards based on how good the players were in the game. To get to level 100, players need to accumulate ~6.8Million points. An average game of Horde nets 200 points, whereas an average game of other games are dependent on your score, but usually no more than 3-4000 points.

Obviously, getting to 100 would take forever, so people started looking at ways to "boost", and what you see above in that video is the end result. If you do a quick search online, you'll find plenty of explanations of how it's done, why it's the optimal one, and what happens in it (like here: link). What's interesting about this is that since it requires players to be playing in a "social match" (no private rooms), interesting player behaviours occur. Let's detail a few here:

1. Since not everyone is going to be on a mic, or refuse to talk on a mic, people have devise a pretty interesting way to signal that they want to boost: prep the grenade, and swing it around. People who are in for boosting stand around the circle and wait till everyone is in (or start shooting at people who aren't in).

2. Games go up to 120 points, so there's often a very gentleman's rule of backing out of the circle to 115 so that the other team gets just as many points. When you see it in action, you'll realized that these people may not know each other, but will cooperate to the same goal (of more XPs)

3. When there's an anti-boosting player in the game, both teams signal each other on where to take them out. They end up leaving in frustration.

4. When both teams get to ~115, then it's suddenly a free for all, almost a John Woo-isk scenario where everyone starts firing away for the win.

Players may not understand the real reason why it happens: but they've internally evaluated the meta-game goals (XPs, Levels) were worth more when they cooperate with each other, and are more than willing to grind through hours and hours of this just to get a higher score. Can they do anything to dissuade people from gaming the system? Probably, by lowering the level reward/score. Should they?

Is this the right way to play the game? Or better yet: What is the right way to play a game? If I never use cover in Gears, am I playing it wrong too, and should I get less score from it? Interesting things to think about.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On My Mind: The price of Freemium

One of the most prominent discussion about games in the last year or so have all revolved around the viability of the current business model, specifically: Freemium Games. The wiki definition is a pretty solid description:

Freemium is a business model that works by offering a game, product or service free of charge (such as software, web services or other) while charging a premium for advanced features, functionality, or related products and services.

In the video game world though, there's been very strong debates on what constitutes "advance features, functionality, related products and services". By the most basic definition, even basic DLC can be considered "freemium", as it offers new content for a premium fee (other than the base game not being free at all). In fact, some companies have tried approaching this model with traditional retail games (see MX vs. ATV Alive) with less than impressive result.

It's hard to say whether this model actually works or not given there's only been one attempt. Guess it's something we'll never know.

This post isn't about mixing in freemium with traditional retail game model, but rather the strict "free" model. In addition, games that sell "content packs" that isn't repeatedly re-purchasable in a solo play setting (IE, extra modes/levels) don't technically fall into the same discussion. While they are proper "freemium", no game balance issues occur, as players are at worst only locked away from additional content (which technically works like DLC). What I'm after is specifically anything re-purchasable: in game currency/"energy", in game stat boost (both temporary and permanent), and any freemium content that changes the balance of play in a competitive game.


The concept of in game currency/"energy" is probably the model most familiar to people. You may have seen it in pretty much all of Zynga's games (or practically most Facebook social games), and it's starting to trickle over to iOS games. My latest obsession on iOS, Tiny Towers, uses this model as it's entire revenue scheme (how successful though, is another debate).


Tiny Towers

And truth to be told about this model:

Two interesting points arise, especially from a designer standpoint:

a) The games were designed with breaks in mind, and by implementing such a feature to "allow" players to play by paying. This "time for money" model in theory hurts no one, but I often question whether it ends up playing into people's OCD instincts, the need to "complete" rather than the need to "play". I look at Tiny Towers and I often ask myself: "why is it fun and why do I keep coming back"; certainly, there's some management aspect to it, but it's so minuscule it's inconsequential. All I have is the want of "filling up my building with people", which isn't that good of a "gameplay hook" but rather a "addict hook", triggering the compulsive need to collect and complete.

b) While technically there is a competitive aspect (via seeing your friend's progress), there is no direct competition, which softens the blow if and when someone decides to pay up to speed up progress? Your friends paid money to grow faster? Great, you now can feel wonderful knowing that they paid for something virtual, like getting an extra 500 points. (Here, have 500 points, don't you feel wonderful too!)

In this freemium model, games aren't "unbalanced" by someone throwing in a wad of cash; then again, there might not be much of a game to be "unbalanced" to begin with. For a game like Tiny Towers, I've yet to feel the need to pay for more (which should be a concern on the dev's part). I'm indifferent to games using such a model, and I'm sure there's been well done implementations of it. The only concern I would have with this model is when the business side creeps over every design decision. One example would be Let's Golf 3 by Gameloft: I'll let this review do the talking:

While I think that being able to earn cash (and thus, energy) by playing well is a good gameplay mechanic, the fact that you can only passively earn one unit of energy per hour is ridiculous. In other words, if you’re not that good at the game, you’re going to be punished rather harshly by either having to wait a long time for energy or shell out money to play. Meanwhile, someone that’s better at the game might be able to play significantly longer (and level up faster) by earning more cash in-game and converting it to energy. I personally had no problem scoring birdies and earning enough cash and energy to continually play, but I just think that the energy cool down is way too long for most gamers. It’s definitely going to alienate a lot of players who simply don't have any in-game cash and aren't going to pay or wait an hour to play one hole.


While I had wanted to write something about Freemium for a while, this article about BigPoint is really what triggered me to finish it. In it, Philip Reisberger has some amazing insight on how to charge for in game content, especially in light of game balance:

"In a nutshell, EA doesn't understand it," he adds, referring to EA's insistence that a Battlefield 3 pre-order bonus containing advanced weaponry would not give players a competitive advantage. "It wouldn't ruin the game. If selling an advantage ruins the game, you haven't done the balancing right…EA and Ubisoft, for example, they're both trying, but they're not really there yet.

Note the bolded line: If an advantage ruins the game, then it isn't balanced.

But wait. If it's balanced, how can it be an advantage?

OK, but if there's no advantage, then what the hell am I selling to people to actually give them an advantage?

OK, let's say I do come up with an advantage, but then is it still balanced?

We've reached a paradoxical issue: If you sell freemium content, how does it affect game balance? Can you truly call it balance if someone can buy their way to an advantage? The examples I've seen are truly frightening: "sell more ammo", "carry more items", "faster respawn". If you take a sports analogy, it'd be the Yankees paying the ref to get an extra out for an inning, or everyone getting aluminum bats for their next turn.

I don't want to say that it's impossible, but every time I read someone say "you aren't fully exploiting what can be done with freemium", I would worry about every other gameplay issue they haven't thought about.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Administrative Stuff: I'm still here, I have not turned into Joaquin Phoenix, yet. The last month has certainly been interesting as I started crunching for content. No, I haven't exactly completed it yet, but it's been interesting to go through the process of slashing content to cut down on dev time and get something usable.

...Yet I still missed my PAXDev/PAXPrime self imposed deadline on shipping something...

...On the other hand, I've got a bunch of new material to write about, so hopefully I'll resume writing starting next week.

See you then.