Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Goodbye, For Now

I'm afraid that between my school work and new friends, I've largely lost track of this blog. I forgot it several times in a row, and I'm hard pressed to come up with interesting ideas anymore. Since it's not as if this blog has thousands of followers, I don't think it'll throw too many people off if I put this on hold for now. I cannot let myself lose track of my school work, and so I say goodbye for now. Maybe after things calm down I'll start doing updates again, not nessecarily on a regular basis, but at least one every once in awhile. I'm also considering using this as a place to post updates on my current projects when they get in full swing and have real things to show and discuss. But, until then, I'm taking a break.

So... peace.

A concept art piece done over night by our artist for our ant based first person shooter.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Side Quests

Many games have side quests, optional objectives or missions that you don't have to do. However, they're generally rewarding and so can help you complete the main story quests easier. In some cases, it's only by doing optional things that you can get the best items. So, side quests are quite popular among players trying to hunt down the best stuff.

Side quests are also nice for the developer, because they provide a means to pack in more play time, without requiring you to stretch the story too far. It's annoying to the player when the story goes on and on and it's equally annoying to the developer when they have to make up ways for the story to go a little longer. If you include side quests, your story can be shorter, but the player will have more play time still because they will still have things to do. Just don't rely entirely on side quests and cut your story too short.

And there's the real problem right? Over using side quests. Lots of games these days have short stories padded with side quests. Even for the ones that don't have a super short story there's still a problem, losing sight of the real goal. In Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I finished the tutorial and spent ten hours of play time before I even returned to the story. The good news is that I was able to enjoy myself for that long without doing anything in the story, but it also meant that I quickly lost interest in the story. The story seemed like a really long side quest. You run into trouble if your player loses sight of the ultimate goal, because they quickly begin to wonder, "Why do I care?" If your player doesn't care anymore, you've lost them.

Real life has side quests too. The main quest is (should be) your job or schooling. Side quests are time with friends, chasing girls, etc. This topic is on my mind because right now I'm trying to ensure that I don't lose sight of my story quest. I got a lot of side quests right now, thus why this post was forgotten last night, and while they're all important, you should never lose sight of the main goal. Think if that's ever happened to you in your life. Remember what happened as a result? Probably didn't go so well. Think about the same effect in games, it's not good to have there either.

You wouldn't want your player to miss now would you?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dynamic Difficulty

Many games have a difficulty setting. Usually, it's just Easy, Normal, and Hard modes. What the difference between them is exactly, usually just comes down to that the enemies hit harder and have more health. Also, the difficulty is usually something that is set at the beginning of the game and cannot be changed except by starting over. It's when these standards are altered, that things can get very interesting.

One of the first and foremost ways to mix the difficulty up is to have unlockable difficulties. If you beat the game on Hard mode, you unlock Wicked mode. Completing the game on Wicked unlocks another higher difficulty with an increasingly excruciating name. Theoretically, this adds replay value to the game as the players looking for a challenge will play the game again at the progressively higher difficulties. However, many players do not like the idea that you must prove your worth in order to access all the game has to offer. They feel that they should not have to be "at least this good" in order to even attempt the higher difficulties. I think that, if your higher difficulty truly changes things (see below), that it is fair to do this... once.

Next up, what does the higher challenge really mean? As I said, usually the enemies hit harder and have more health. Often, this means that fights just take longer, but the only real added challenge is a new test of patience. If we really want to add challenge, we will have to do more than just power up the enemies. The obvious answer would be to change the AI. The AI would get smarter and faster as the difficulty went up. However, programming one set of AI is difficult enough, but to make multiple sets would take a colossal amount of time and energy. Halo 3 claimed to do just this. I played Halo 3, and found no noticeable difference in the AI between the difficulties. I'm waiting for some developer to do this (and do it right) because it really will be worth the investment.

So, what if we let the player change the difficulty at will during the game? What if we even let them change it during a fight? Also, in RPGs the player tends to start off very weak. So what if we increased the difficulty as the player advanced in levels? There is one game that has tried both of these, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Oblivion has a difficulty slider that can be accessed at any time through the pause menu. Except when experimenting, I've left it in the middle as per the default. The game has its hard parts, but I've found that it is fairly easy to progress through at a steady pace. I once watched one of my friends play the game. He would charge into a room, get surrounded and have the snot kicked out of him. As he was one his last legs, he would pause the game, zero out the difficulty slider, and then trash the remaining enemies. After he was back to full capacity, he would reset the difficulty, and continue into the next room. Mind you, this happened in every single room. So, about every minute or so, the slider would get moved. It would appear that the ability to change the difficulty on the spot is something which is easily abused.

Oblivion also increased the difficulty has your character advanced in levels. Every couple of levels you advanced, the enemies would receive upgrades. Weaker enemies would be outright replaced by stronger foes. Bandits would start wearing better armor and wield better weapons. So, the game would get harder. On the flip side though, the loot dropped would be better and those better weapons and armor used by the bandits could become your if you killed them. For me, the increased difficulty/loot meant I blasted myself to level 20 as fast as possible. Level 20 was when the upgrades stopped, so if I leveled to it then I would be grabbing the best equipment possible. However, for most people, this upgrade system had the opposite effect. Your character will continue to grow in power, even if you never cash in a level up. This means that most players remain level one throughout the entire game. I've seen numerous people complain that the game is effectively unplayable if you level up ever. This is odd to me, considering I try to make characters with obvious handicaps to try and increase the challenge a little. My main character is a very powerful caster, but takes 175% more damage from all magic cast at him. This means that I'm fine, until I come up against an enemy caster, at which point every move is a matter of life and death. All the while, my difficulty slider remains in the middle.

Here is where I mention what game I think has done this difficulty thing the best. After thinking about it I've decided I give the award to Neverwinter Nights. While it has the same problem Oblivion did of having a difficulty slider that can be moved in mid battle, it does enough other things right to outweigh that problem. The main part it does right is that the difficulty affects more than just changing the enemy's health. Certain spells will not affect the player at lower difficulties, namely those that would allow an enemy to take control of them. At hard mode, your spells that affect an area rather than a single enemy will begin to hit your allies if they are caught in it. Of course, the standard changes to enemies are still there but the game goes beyond just the basic changes and that's what puts it above the rest.

What do you think of variable difficulty?

A boss from Demon's Souls who, like all bosses in that difficult game, will eat you up.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Power of Dreams

Dreams take two main forms, life goals and the ones you have at night. The life goals type are when you dream of making it big and having a good life. These are powerful in that they provide direction as you go and you often shape your life in a way to make your dreams come true. The dreams you have at night can also be very powerful, but are a little more... um... hard to use.

As I said, life dreams give you a goal to work towards. Everyone has some sort of dream, and everyone has a slightly different approach toward achieving them. Some dream small, allowing them to realize it easily. They then pick a new dream and move on, working incrementally. Personally, I dream very big, very big. It will take a lot of work and luck to make it happen, but I'm more than happy to settle for less if it doesn't happen, and if it does happen then I've done something amazing. Dream big, but be content with what you have.

Most video game characters would seem to tend toward my side. Many characters in games have huge aspirations. Prime example is Pokemon. A ten year old kid from a town of about six people wants to become the greatest Pokemon trainer in the world. Somehow, this kid in about a week runs all over creation thumping seventy year old guys who have been training their whole life. Not sure how they "train" exactly, but ten year old rarely become world champions of anything across all age groups. In order for a single person to make a major accomplishment like that, they have to be truly driven. They have their (unrealistic) dreams, and they will do anything to make them happen. This is what video game characters do. They have this drive built into their character, a pure will to succeed. Might sound stupid, but this is frequently the basis for protagonists.

Then there's sleep dreams. There's lots of different explanations for why we dream at night and what they mean. They might be cool, embarrassing, or stupid, and you might not really remember them the next morning, but these too have power. Some people try to focus on a problem as they fall asleep and tell themselves that they will dream a solution. I saw a documentary in one of my psychology classes where a NASA scientist did just this for how to build a base on the moon. The next morning he began working on a design where robots would it. Dreams can also be a source of inspiration on accident too. Two of my games I'm currently working on are based on dreams I had. They are both still in the early design phase, because I got very little from the dreams to go on, but they are fun to work on.

Sleep dreams are also used in games a lot. Usually, they are ways for the game to give you hints of some sort. Many times a character will jump up and exclaim they had a dream where the Goddess spoke to them and so they know we must go to the western mountains. This usually seems like a convenient cover for a plot hole the writers couldn't think of a better way to solve. Other times, NPCs will contact the player through the protagonists dreams. In Fallout 2, the village mystic would speak to you while your character slept to tell you that time is running out.

Yeah, wouldn't really want this guy showing up in my dreams. He also freaked me out real bad the first time, because I hadn't met him so I had no idea who he was.

There's one more way for dreams to be used in games. In high school I took a class about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of the Lord of the Rings. In one of his essays on fantasy, Tolkien spoke about "Dreams as an Excuse". He said that one of the worst things a fantasy story can do is to write it off as a dream at the end. The truth of this isn't fully apparent until one considers what the Lord of the Rings would be like if the last sentence of the book had been, "And then Frodo woke up." Maybe he gets a cup of coffee and picks up his briefcase to catch the bus to work, I don't know. But I think the books would be much less popular if that had happened, it would ruin everything previously written.

Games do this sometimes, and it usually has that very effect. A game can always be trashed by a terrible ending, but using the dream excuse is one of the worst. There is one game that did this, and for once did it well. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. It's hinted at in the title, and the goal of the game is to wake the sleeping Wind Fish. Waking him is the only way to leave the island everyone says, but the bosses (appropriately called Nightmares) claim that doing this will destroy the island. In the end, Link defeats the Nightmares and meets the Wind Fish. Mr. Fish ends his monologue with, "Come Link, let us awaken... together!" After the island fades, we see Link sleeping clinging to a piece of his ship destroyed by lightning at the beginning of the game. Link then wakes up and sits on the wood. The entire game was a dream. But, what makes it work for me, is that right after that the Wind Fish flies overhead. So maybe it wasn't a dream, or if it was, it had real world consequences. That makes it work for me. Personally, I don't plan on ever trying to pull of a dream excuse ending.

Link's Awakening Ending

So, what do you think of dreams and how do you use them?

I almost feel bad for killing that last boss in Awakening. On one level, he's actually trying to save everyone on the island, but mostly just himself.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I'm Going to Kill You... After I'm Done Telling You That I'm About to.

Shortened edition this week. I'm on my way to Grad School and time is short.

I recently, and finally, picked up a copy of Grand Theft Auto 4 for my PC. I decided that I'd enjoy it, despite it's flaws and this proved true. I just like the screwing around aspect of the GTA games, and this is still quite intact. It's a bit hindered by the cars all being built out of lead, a criticism I had heard of. Having to take people out on the town is annoying, another criticism I was aware of. But there's one thing that really bugs me that no one had yet pointed out, every time I'm sent to kill someone I walk right up to them and tell them so.

I like avoiding messy fights. A nice clean head shot can settle an assassination mission quickly and quietly. I certainly don't like finding myself in the middle of a room full of people who I just told I'm going to kill. But no, I always have to watch a cut scene and get planted in the middle of the room with everyone shooting at me. Arresting control from the player is something that should always be done sparingly. But to consistently put the player in danger? Maybe sometimes, but it is happening quite frequently. Kill the player? Rarely, and only as part of the story. Players get tired of getting automatically killed very fast. But punish the player for dying when you threw them in the middle of danger? Now that's just not nice.

Letting the player strategize and plan their attack is an important factor in games. It gives the player more control, something they often like. Forcing them around makes the game more linear, and robs them of control. As I said, doing this sometimes can be great as a sudden switch in circumstances can really throw the player for a loop and add challenge to the game. You don't want things to get predictable. But when the player predicts they will need full health and armor before a mission because they're going to lose half of it before they can move, it's getting bad.

Always be careful about stealing control from the player. When done right and rarely, it is amazing. When done wrong and too often, it can cloud an otherwise great game.

This is the last guy I killed. And, despite starting this close to him, it took me ten minutes to chase him down. All because Niko opened his mouth.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Time's Always Ticking

No matter what you do, time is always passing. While it may not always seem so, it is a good thing it always flows forward. It means you can't go back to last Thursday and pay your phone bill on time, but if time was unpredictable it wouldn't be very good for your sanity. It might not be a good thing to wake up in yesterday tomorrow.

Time also flows in many games. Most of the time, this is really just a cosmetic effect. Day and night go by to no real concern of the player. Sometimes, it will have a minor effect on gameplay. This might be that stores are closed at night, and the player will have to wait for day to dawn before they can sell their loot. Designers must always consider time when making a game. Even if there is no passage of time within a game, they must still consider how long the player will spend in the game. At other places, developers may use time as a means to increase the challenge of a particular objective.

Trying to jump across a series of platforms is always more difficult and nerve racking when a clock is ticking at the same time. Just like trying to mail a letter before the post office closes, the threat of the platforms disappearing in ten seconds makes the task harder. Unless you work very well under pressure, it actually can be harder to write that letter the way you want with the timer going. Likewise, adding a timer can make a player rush and cause themselves to fail a simple jumping challenge they would have otherwise made. In this way, one can add difficult to a game, as well as the overall time the player spends playing (since they have to make more attempts).

Sometimes, timers are used as a cheap trick. No game makes a better example of this than Star Fox Adventures. I recently guided a friend through the game and warned him that, "Everything is timed." While this is not entirely true, it is a pretty accurate description of the game. Basically every challenge has a timer linked to it. The few that don't involve precise timing anyway, by say requiring that you quickly turn off a series of fire jets quickly to prevent them destroying a bomb quickly flying past. Quickly, quickly! Time is always against you in this game, and it gets rather grating very quickly. A time challenge here or there is fine, but if the player is constantly pressed they get burned out.

Another side to time in games, is the ability to manipulate it. Unfortunately, time manipulation has become incredibly common place, particularly in first person shooters in the form of bullet time. The ability to slow down time for everyone but you is quite advantageous in such games. However, as I indicated before, it is so common that it fails to interest many players anymore.

But what about the forms that have not become common place? How about rewinding time? Few games have used this ability as well as Prince of Persia Sand of Time. Braid is more recent and also did very well with it, but I am less familiar with Braid, and so I will use Sand of Time. The basis was very simple, here is the story of what I did earlier. Because the entire game is the Prince just recounting the story, he might "goof" in his recollection. While it may be hard to believe his memory is so faulty that he may accidentally claim he was sawed in half, and then quickly correct himself, it is quite handy if you actually are sawed in half. With a simple button press, the prince's body will reconnect and he will leap backwards through the air to land on the platform he fell off of. Then you can try again. And again. And again. While it may seem like this makes the game simple, just keep trying since there's no penalty because you'll eventually make it, the game managed to maintain a good level of challenge throughout. Faulty memory not withstanding.

At this point we come to my favorite time manipulation game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. If you are familiar with the game this choice may strike you as odd. If you are not, let me explain why it would be odd. To do this, let me start by setting the scene. Time is always ticking. You have three days to save the world before it is destroyed by the creepy looking moon crashing into it. Time passes at a rate of one second of real time to one minute of game time. This means you have 72 minutes to beat the game. You've also been turned into a Deku Scrub, which really can't do much. In the last moments (the last six hours) you confront Majora's Mask, but are powerless to stop it from calling the moon down on you. You do manage to reacquire your ocarina, which it stole from you, and remember the Song of Time. If you play it, the Goddess of Time will aid, or so you've heard. At that moment, your companion cries out, "Help! Someone, anyone! Goddess of Time! We need more time!" Which is true, so you play the song... and find yourself back at dawn of the first day.

All of a sudden, the time limit becomes less of a problem. You can reset time as often as you need to. You also get the ability to slow time to 1/3 it's normal speed giving you much more time to do things. I said earlier that constant time limits are grating, and while this game is constantly timed, it is mostly a back burner type issue. The interesting thing about the time manipulation, is that you can go forward 12 hours, but you have to reset all the way back to go back in time. Since all the actions of the NPCs are dictated by time, missing an appointment means you will have to reset time in order to catch it on the next set of days. Resetting time has another interesting consequence, all but the most important progress is lost. The bosses must be defeated again, you must introduce yourself to people again, etc.

Majora's Mask is one place where the time manipulation is highly controlled, and has consequences. The Prince of Persia can rewind ten seconds if he misses a jump and try again. But if Link resets time after missing a jump, it's a lot more work to get back to the jump. Also, resetting time is the only way to permanently save the game. I usually don't like games with limited saving, but here I enjoyed it. I like a game that forces you to run a tight ship (but not too tight) and Majora's Mask does just that.

In the end, time manipulation is far from a new concept and perhaps needs to be given time to rest and cool off. Individual timed challenges can be good when well placed, but overusing them as Star Fox Adventures did wears the player out. Majora's Mask's answer of a long overall timer worked for me, but it was one of the main criticisms of the game, alongside being too short. Perhaps the best answer is to take the real world example and let time just go by as normal. Just like it's good for our sanity in real life, it may be best for the player's sanity as well.

There, that is the moon and you have three days to stop it. Go.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Communcations 101 - (Un)Expressivness

When talking to another person, body language plays a key role. Even the slightest facial twitch can completely change the message your sending, whether you meant to or not. Over the phone this is lost. However, it can usually be made up enough by tone of voice. The way you say something can be as effective as a face twitch. But then we boil communication further down to just text. It can be surprisingly hard to pass on the way you're currently feeling through text alone. This is probably where emoticons came from to add mock facial expressions to text chat. In case you're unfamiliar with the term emoticon, that's adding things like :) to make a smiley face. You've probably seen those around. I use emoticons frequently in text only chat because it's very hard to convey my type of humor without them.

But what about the non-humans in games? Even in online games, there's still communication without a human on the other end. These are usually done through text only in the online sector. But, on the single player offline games, giving voices to most or all of the characters has been a standard for a long time now. How expressive these people are depends on a few things. First, the voice actor. I've gone into voice acting in great detail before, so I'll just reiterate that the person needs to be able to read expressively to give the character some depth. Second, the writing needs to be descent. If the lines are stupid, then they won't communicate well no matter how good the voice acting is. Third, and the one I'm going to go on about here, is facial expressions and body language. This is important for the same reasons it is important in real life.

My Dad recently got me thinking about Botox, and not because he got it. But it sometimes seems like many NPCs in games have gotten several Botox shots, their faces don't budge at all. One might argue that this is a minor point, and so the animators should spend their time on other areas. Fair enough, but it can sometimes really wreck the immersion in a game when you zoom way in on someones face and they stare at you all zombie like. They blink at regular intervals, their eyes move back and forth methodically, and they all have a scowl, happy, or neutral face. The only time their face changes is when it moves between these states. The rest of the time it is frozen in one of those positions. At least their mouth moves when they talk. But they're content to stare at you for hours like this until you select a response. Problem is, it's still really creepy.

I are robot BEEP BOOP. Fear my neutral expression.

Because this frozen face bit is unsettling, it breaks the player out of the game. This is something we want to never do. The player should feel like part of the game world, and throwing them out of it with zombie facial expressions (unless they are talking to a genuine zombie) is a problem. I do have to give Oblivion credit (Bethesda really) for taking the initiative to do such close facial conversations, and being the first I know of to do so with every NPC and with such detail. It had problems, but every game since has gotten better. This is a problem that will fade out as the technology improves for one, and as game developers get better at making conversation system that use this, but it is one that should not be forgotten. This is one of those simple things that can really jar a game.

Sometimes, a nice fist is what's required to stir conversation up a bit and bring out the angry face.