Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Designer Notebook: Familiarity and Consistency within sequels (DeathSpank series)

Recently I've been on a binge on Hothead's DeathSpank games (DeathSpank, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue and The Baconing), and I had an interesting observation about how the games approached keeping contents fresh and new, yet maintaining familiarity.

For the uninformed, DeathSpank is essentially a loot based Action RPG similar to the likes of Diablo. The core gameplay loop is taking on quests that yields incremental weapon improvements (0r at least it should be if you intend to play it the right way). So really, the bulk of your playtime will be on this screen:

Going through the three games in quick succession, there's an interesting observation about the type of items you get in the three games:
  • In the first DeathSpank, your weapons/gear are built upon the classic fantasy themed motifs: swords, gaunlets, element based arrows.
  • In Thongs of Virtue, the game detours towards a much more modern (modern retro) feel, with guns/grenades replacing ranged weapons and ranged spells. Your gear was also themed appropriately to that setting (western, military, etc)
  • In The Baconing, with the setting moving towards a futuristic setting, the game moved towards a much more abstract themed with more "futuristic" weapons.
You may have noticed that my description of The Baconing is lacking, well, that's because as of right now, I'm the most disappointed with how items/gear is handled.

The great thing about the first two game's choices is that it either a) uses classic fantasy setting that is easily understood by the audience (in the former) or b) uses general cliches to aid player's understanding (in the latter). An bow is a bow, and a machine gun is a machine gun, but what the hell is a laser fish (I wish I was kidding)? I appreciate that as different themes and settings, it's appropriate to change up your related items to make it "feel right", but there are only so many levels of abstraction can be done before the original meaning is lost. It's also interesting to note that while the second game took a turn for a more modern setting, major motifs were kept identical (treasure chest is, appropriately, a wooden treasure chest), it is only with The Baconing that it changed into a futuristic design, which only serves to confuse players coming from the first two games.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Designer Notebook: SSX Demo (Xbox360)

So, on the eve of the release of the new SSX game, I had jumped into the demo just to see how much change it has received since my previous plays (at PAXEast, there were definitely control-iffyness), but one of the most striking things was the tutorials:

Most tutorials often throws too many things at the player, resulting in a frustrating experience that defeats the purpose of a tutorial. SSX could have easily thrown the demo at the player by letting them go at it on a gentle hill with large, highlighted ramps, but it still leaves the possibility of players getting confused/frustrated in learning both controls on the ground and learning tricks in the air.

So it's interesting to note that the tutorial removes the entire snowboarding aspect when teaching players how to control tricks. This, in my mind, does a few things:

  • It removes any possible issues that players can't master both steering the character on the hills AND doing tricks at the same time.
  • It emphasize clearly to anyone new to the series that it is all about the tricks, in fact, it pretty much says that snowboarding/racing itself is secondary.
  • It sets up the expectation of what the player should be expecting: you just jumped out of a helicopter, falling infinitely, doing random tricks as someone calls them out. It's clearly not bounded to reality.
  • It addresses the issue of visual feedback: people knew they were doing tricks, but never really made a mental connection to what's happening on screen. By isolating a tutorial about user input to a visual output, players can clearly see what they're doing in game.

So yeah. Bravo, EA. This was one well done tutorial.

Administrative Stuff: New Section - Designer Notebook

Sorry guys, I've gone into this weird "almost crunch time but more like a sprint" mode, and haven't really posted recently. I've got a few things I wanted to write down, and I realized that the categories I've built are just too "long form"-ish for quick posts. So: "Designer Notebook" - Quick blurbs about ideas and observations about games or game design in general. Like "On My Mind", but without meaning or structure.

I'll have a post up this afternoon with this in mind.

Sidenote: I may end up reordering some of the older posts to this new category...

Monday, February 13, 2012

What Game Designers do (the meme-generator version)

I had a bit of free time, and seeing that stupid meme go around, I had to do one:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On My Mind: The Gentlemen's Agreement of Game Development

The recent spat between Zynga and NimbleBit has been interesting to watch, but for those who aren't familiar, NimbleBit's Ian Marsh has a quick visual summary (click to enlarge):

Now depending on whichever side you feel like taking, you could say that Zynga did wrong by copying identically, or you can say that since it looks different, it is different, or even the idea that both games are just rip-offs of SimTower. In fact, the last option was Zynga's official stance on the topic, attributing all "Tower Games" to SimTower, and that "Google didn't create the first search engine. Apple didn't create the first mp3 player or tablet. And, Facebook didn't create the first social network."

I'm going to let that last statement sink in for a bit.

...did Zynga just lump all "Tower Games" as the same one? Was their argument "Either you consider all tower games to be clones of the first one, or everything is it's unique product?"

Hey guys: Don't make a game with guns in it: you're just copying real life.



I find this series of events interesting because we've never seen anything like this before with console/pc development, at least nowhere to the scale of this without the side doing the copying conceding. I like to think of this as "The Gentlemen's Agreement of Game Development", which has the following rules:
  • Don't do direct copies (1 to 1 mapping of features and visuals).
  • Lifting some ideas is fine, but offer your own spin or additions to differentiate.
  • Even if core mechanics are identical (genre trappings), the content has to be different
Not every game and developer have to be 100% original, and games often pay homage to their inspirations, but when players see games with similarities, they're still going to see the difference, and the gap is big enough that we players never feel like we need to call it out.

But enough of me talking, let's see some visual examples:

Mario Kart and Diddy Kong Racing (Pictured: Mario Kart 64 and Diddy Kong Racing)

Mechanically, the game maintains the same feel (8 player "kart racing", use of randomized weapons, rubberbanding arcade AI racing experience). There is no direct clone of content (original racetracks, different types of weapon mechanics) and Diddy Kong features different fundamental ideas (story based racing, weapon stacking, different vehicle types).

Legend of Zelda and Darksiders (Pictured: Ocarina of Time and Darksiders)

Darksiders is a game clearly paying homage to Zelda: Dungeon traversal, the handling of item and experience as character growth, a lock on camera, etc. In fact, both Link and War have a horse at somepoint in the game, and there's an entire combat section on a horse. But no one would go saying Darksiders ripped off Zelda: Darksiders features a much deeper combat system, and is dramatically different in both tone and style.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band (Pictured: GH: Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3)

Sure, at one point, it was the same developer, and in fact, you can attribute notes coming down a lane as an idea from Konami's Beatmania games too, but at every step along the way, something was changed, with various results: Beatmania games have had "hidden notes", Guitar Hero introduced HammerOns, Rock Band added other instruments, and an alternate scoring system, etc. If you put the games side by side today, you can see that in their core mechanics, they are the same (players matching colors with buttons, essentially, Simon says), but they wildly differ in character design, user experience (dealing with interface, etc), and content.

Metroid and Shadow Complex (Pictured: Super Metroid and Shadow Complex)

Shadow Complex is another game that makes no apologies in paying homage to a classic "genre". Similar to Mario Kart and the kart racing genre, the former is such a powerful game that it's features is the template for that genre. Shadow Complex features similar ideas of exploration (areas that are locked away with certain weapons/methods of traversal), but it differs by offering it's own take on combat and weapons. At best, we can call the game "inspired by".

Puyo Pop and Puzzle Fighter (Pictured: Puyo Pop and Super Puzzle Fighter II)

At first glance, these two games look identical, but mechanically, the games are completely different: Puyo Pop's clearing is entirely based on chain size, whereas Puzzle Fighter is based on a unique "breaker" block. The strategies and moves you make for one game does not translate into the other, which is a clear sign that it's a different game. Puzzle Fighter is clearly influenced by Puyo Pop, but it's offering a unique take on the ideas of block clearing puzzle.

Resident Evil and Dead Space (Pictured: Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space)

Again, Dead Space clearly knows it's influenced by Resident Evil 4, which has become the cornerstone of the third person shooter. The over the shoulder camera, the item management, it's "attempts at horror". Yet there are huge differences: Dead Space's aim at "dismemberment"; real time item management in creating tension; it's sci-fi space setting allowing for variations in gameplay.


I don't know whether this gentlemen's agreement that console/pc devs have played by was done subconsciously, but it's obvious that facebook/mobile games don't quite play by the same rules. I don't think I can blame anyone for why we're here, but I hope more devs agree upon not directly copying someone's work and own up to it if they did.