Monday, August 31, 2009

Now at

Final Form Games, my game development company, has a new website. We will be making most of our posts over there and all of the game review/design content that I would have put up here will now be posted on Enjoy!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Battleship, not Axis and Allies: Nintendo and the expanding market

News came down today that Sega's latest attempt to make a mature, hardcore-aimed game for the Wii, MadWorld, sold 66k copies in the US it's opening month. This is lackluster even when compared to relative flops for the 360; in it's first month Too Human, just such a game, sold over twice that number of copies. A similar piece of news dropped regarding GTA: Chinatown Wars, a mature title for the DS, which sold only 89,000 units in March.

Many have discussed the Wii and DS audiences' apparent resistance to hardcore games. Discussing the sales of Nintendo games in February, TWG News' said, "t will be very interesting to see how well MadWorld and GTA: ChinaTown Wars do on the Wii and DS in March. If these hardcore games can’t sell well on each of these systems, then people should just give up trying." I wouldn't go that far, but it's clear that, despite the fact that there are more Wiis out there than any single other console and the DS crushes everything else, the people that own these Nintendo platforms are not using their consoles in the same way that 360 and Playstation owners use theirs. To get a better sense of that difference, I find it helpful to think about board games:

You've probably played Battleship. It's a simple game where two players, unable to see each others' boards, fire shots at coordinates, discovering and trying to sink his opponent's ships based only on knowing whether each shot hit or missed. It's a classic for a reason; the game mechanics themselves are time-tested, having been invented in the early 1900s, and so simple you could play the game with a pencil and paper if you wanted to.

It's easy to learn, takes a minute or two to start up and to take down, and games last maybe ten or twenty minutes apiece. It has this in common with most of the other board games that you might find in the board game aisle at your local Target.

Contrast this with another game of naval warface:

Where Battleship's rules take a minute or Two to explain, the first time you play Axis & Allies you will likely spend ten to twenty minutes -- the time of a full game of battleship -- listening to someone explain the rules or reading the directions of Axis and Allies. After this, you will still need to refer to the rulebook or a knowledgable other player frequently to clarify details. Axis & Allies comes with charts, graphs, and cards that can change how a piece works in the middle of a game. It also takes 4-5 hours to play, which are often spread across several days as the board is left on a table somewhere.

Axis & Allies is by no means the most complex board game out there. There are a lot of great complex board games: pretty much any board game put out by Fantasy Flight Games, Avalon Hill, or any game company from mainland Europe is going to fit that description. All of these games require a lot of time buy in just to learn how to play the game, and usually take a lot of time to play through each game. Backbreaking amounts of time.

People love these games. Some people love to play them all the time. Other people, like myself, enjoy playing them every once in a while. Most people, however, look at an Axis and Allies board, or see the hour it takes just to break all the cardboard markers out of their cutouts when first playing Arkham Horror, and they run for the hills.

Many of these people who run away would happily play a game of Battleship, or Connect Four, or Pictionary, or Sorry, or, well, you get the idea. It is these people that form most of the audience for the Wii games out there.

When I use Wii games, I also use them more like board games. When I have a friend from out of town come to visit, and we're looking for something to do, I'll break out Steven Spielberg Presents Boom Blox. When my fiancée's parents come down for the weekend, I might put in Wii Sports. I played MadWorld, but I rented it. When I buy games for the Wii, it is to play those games with other people and, these days, the other people I play games with aren't usually "hardcore." I am not alone in this.

When you look at the top selling Wii games, you don't see a lot of single player or traditional game titles. What you do see are, for the most part, games that you can pick up and play with other people who happen to be around. Even Wii Fit, which I use mostly for personal exercise, has a serious set of minigames that can be enjoyed by a group of people.

In short, as consoles become more accessible and penetrate the market deeper, the difference between video games and regular games is shrinking in peoples eyes. The Wii is being used the same way that cards and board games have been used for millenia. Looked at in this way, the Wii isn't the odd man out, it's a "market correction," showing the hardcore gaming market to be the niche that it really is.

All of this is not to say that hardcore and mature games do not have a place on the Wii. Sega was, reportedly, happy with the apparently meager sales of MadWorld. Considering what they must have saved on asset generation in that game, between the lower res and polygon requirements of the Wii and a pallete made up of four colors (one of which is reserved for UI), I'm sure they are happy. The trick is to manage your expectations.

Monday, March 30, 2009

BattleForge - Card Based RTS

BattleForge, from what I've played of it, is an inherently fun game. It doesn't do everything right but then, as it does several largely "new" things, it can be forgiven for some of its flaws.

For those who don't know, BattleForge is an online RTS with two defining characteristics: 1) Unlike other RTS's, it is built around cooperative "PvE" play. 2) Rather than having defined "armies", (e.g. zerg, human, and protoss or GDI and Nod), players can mix and match "cards" of different types. You can have 20 cards total in your army and each card acts as a production source of that kind of unit or effect. There is no concept of a "hand" of cards. All of the cards in your deck sit along the bottom and can be used multiple times throughout the game, consuming resources each time.

Now, not all cards are created equal. Some are terribly powerful and some are basic infantry you'll want to use all the time. The cards and decks are balanced using techniques borrowed from the worlds of RTS's and CCGs. The game, in fact, borrows very heavily from Magic: The Gathering: the cards are divided into four types: fire, frost, nature, and shadow. In addition to an energy cost (top left on the card above, 100 in this case), each card has an "orb" requirement. The symbols on the card above indicate that it needs 2 shadow orbs (purple) and 1 orb of any kind (the empty circle).

You meet these requirements by capturing "monuments." Monuments are scattered across the maps, usually placed at regular intervals of when you will reach them in the course of a scenario. When you find a monument, you can spend some energy to claim it and attune it to one of the four energy types. You then have an orb of that color that lasts until the monument is destroyed. Thus, if you have two "shadow" monuments and 1 fire monument, you could summon the fallen skyelf above.

The other major balancing factors are card charges and card cooldown. Each card has a number of charges associated with it. The above card has 2. As long as you can pay the cost and meet the requirements you can produce a number of units equal to the card's charge cost without having to wait. In general, smaller more rank and file cards have a higher number - 4 or 5 - and the big nasty cards start at a single charge. After that, you have to wait for the card's cooldown to elapse. Cooldown is usually very short for rank and file cards -- your zergling analogues -- and is very long for your giant all-your-eggs-in-one-basket cards.

This all has the effect of making the game feel, unsurprisingly, like a combination of Dawn of War and Magic:TG. This combination is a great idea, but it has mixed results. On the one hand, you do miss a lot of the tactical pleasure of a deeper RTS. The deck building mechanic comes at the expense of the tech-tree real-time RPS feeling of a StarCraft. You simply don't make many tech tree/play style decisions in the middle of the game. All of those come during the deck-building phase. There's much less exhilaration of the unexpected, one of my favorite feelings in a good RTS.

Having said that, the deck mechanics are by no means all bad. The magic-like orb threshods ensure for a smooth power curve over the course of the game. Capturing another momument has a clear and immediate payoff unlike capturing another goldmine, etc., which gives you a delayed reward. Deck construction is a lot of fun. It has a lot of the pleasure of putting together a deck in a real CCG.

In his talk at GDC this yeah, Chris Hecker put forth the proposition that the notion of user-generated content covers a lot more ground than we currently talk about it covering. The juice we get from making our own little Spore creature is the same juice we get from beating someone using only Voldo's facehump. We are creating unique experiences, sometimes shared experiences, things that make us feel special and things that we can talk about, show to others.

Seen in this light, the joy of deck construction in BattleForge is very much an act of user creation and playing one's deck, especially in multiplayer scenarios, is a real act of displaying one's own "art" whether that be to impress someone with how awesome you are, or how ridiculous you are, or to just piss them off. If you've ever played a serious amount of any CCG you know the feeling.

The game has problems but the sheer freedom of deck creation and the natural ability to display creation to others simply by playing is an engaging core idea. The business model is a little off-putting but only a little in this day and age. My question is, can we have a game that has this level of "user generation" both in out-of-game time and in game as well?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crawl - Usable Roguelike Gaming

Crawl is currently my favorite roguelike. I first got into the game when it was still called Linley's Dungeon Crawl during my computer-broke-moving-home-from-college phase where I learned how to use linux and played a lot of low-tech games. I recently became spontaneously nostalgiac for it while playing the recent real-time roguelike Triangle Wizard. I discovered that, apparently, Linley Henzell has left Crawl behind to develop things like White Butterfly and that a team of fine upstanding coders has picked up maintaining and adding to the game, turning it into what is now called Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

Yes, it is currently my favorite. Don't get me wrong, I've had a lot of fun with Nethack and *Angbands. But these are games built on complexity. Crawl certainly has its share of complexity -- it has more starting classes and races than I've seen in another serious roguelike -- but at the same time, the game is all about making the user experience as pleasant and simple as possible.

The game's manual contains a large section on philosophy that lays out these design goals:

" Major design goals:
* challenging and random gameplay, with skill making a real difference
* meaningful decisions (no no-brainers)
* avoidance of grinding (no scumming)
* gameplay supporting painless interface and newbie support"

They also mention striving for an "exquisite" user interface elsewhere in the documentation. These are design goals that I can get behind and reading these now, years after I came to enjoy Crawl, I begin to see why I fell in love with it.

As I said before, the game strives to be easy to use. For example, the autopickup function, which often proves to be a mixed blessing in other roguelikes, is indeed exquisite in Crawl. There is a mechanic where you must "butcher" your food before eating it - so, if you don't have a bladed weapon and walk over one, you will pick it up so you can butcher your food. You also automatically pick up small, nonperishable food that you can eat. If you are a Spriggan, and eat only vegetables, you don't pick up meat rations. If you are a ghoul and can eat only flesh, you don't pick up veggies. If you are a mummy, who cannot eat or drink, you don't pick up food or potions. etc. etc.

This simplicity allows the game to get very complex without it being overwhelming to the player. Instead, the player can use these details to make their character unique. There are several races and classes that offer completely unique play experinces -- the aforementioned mummy gains experience slowly but doesn't need to eat allowing for a thinking, exploring player to take his or her time. The ghoul must continually kill and eat his enemies to survive, indeed even to heal at some points. The demonspawn gains semi-random mutations making for a different play experience every time. etc. etc. The magic starting classes are just as varied, allowing for traditional pew-pew mages as well as for "transmuters" who distill potions from the dead and throw them like grenades at their enemies.

There are many more great things about the game that I'm not going to go into here except to say that the experience system is a fantastic blend of gygaxian levels and a skill-based system (a la Oblivion). Also, Crawl also has an excellent tile-set that actually enhances the play experince and integrates well with mouse use, a rarity in the rougelikes I've played.

Overall I've enjoyed going back to crawl. The big takeaway for me was that, by making a few systems that are discovered over time and handling them well, you can present a lot of different material in your game.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Short: Opera Omnia - Theoretical Engine

As the title suggests, this is a short post. I hope to post more of these, intermittently, in the future.

Opera Omnia is a small indie puzzle game with a genuinely inspired central premise: you play a historian. The central mechanic revolves around developing theories of population migration to support a given set of facts. You do all of this using a "historical model" program where you outline migrations between population centers over time.

For example, you might be given the job of supporting the theory that the population of Philadelphia used to be the same as the population of New York. You would be given the current populations (Philadelphia: 1.4M, New York: 8.2M), and a range that the city populations should be at at the beginning of the time line (say, 20k-40k for each). Your job is to scrub through the timeline and set up "migrations" between the two cities. For this puzzle, you might start a migration in the middle of the timeline from Philly to New York.

The puzzles get much more complicated, adding in famines and seasonal droughts, different ethnic populations within a single population center, etc. The framing story and the point fits the mechanics particularly well. It begins to get into the difference between theory and truth, and how facts can be bent to prove points.

Warning: it has a little bit of a learning curve. Don't let that throw you off. It's worth taking a look at, if only for a great timeline mechanic that I've never seen anywhere else.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dawn of War 2 - Co Op Campaign Mode

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II is fucking sweet. It is, in many ways, a game that I have been waiting to play for a very long time. Why, then, am I coming so late to the party? The multiplayer beta's been available for over a month. I never played it. The fact is, however, that I wasn't waiting for the game's traditional RTS multiplayer. I was waiting for the co-op campaign.

I like RTS games a lot. I started right around the first Warcraft game - back when there were just humans and orcs, and the orcs were just humans in funny suits (even more so than they are now). I, like the great nation of Korea, fell completely in love with Starcraft. The thing was, with the advent of (and really starting with WC2 over Kali) I realize that I wasn't the best at them. I enjoyed the campaigns, and playing against an easy computer, but I would get throttled by real human beings. See, I liked to either spend all my time building my base, or spend my time microing a few small groups. I always loved the infiltration missions. But I never paid the right amount of attention to micro and to building at the same time. Thus, I got eaten.

As time went on, I got better. I got a massive crash course in college as most of my friends at the time were freakishly good at the game. College is where I learned how much fun multiplayer comp stomps were. The cooperative experience was amazingly fun, whether or not we were able to hold off the computer.

When I heard that Dawn of War 2 was going to have a cooperative campaign my ears perked up. I already loved the 40k universe. I already really liked the first set of Dawn of War games. Adding to that the ability to play through the campaign with a friend sounded like an amazing opportunity. This was all before I had heard anything else about the game. Once I started reading about the game, I began to salivate.

Dawn of War 2's coop campaign works like this: each player gets to control 2 squads. Each squad has a different flavor and is led by a named character with a distinct personality within the story. One squad is composed of just the commander. Another squad is specialized for long ranged damage. A third excels at jumping into combat zones and dealing hand to hand damage to what they find there. While the first player always controls the commander, the rest of the units can be swapped around throughout play as long as each player controls 2 total.

As has been said elsewhere, this makes the game feel almost more like an RPG than an RTS: more Baldur's Gate than Command & Conquer. Well, that and the fact that units gain experience and have basically the same levelling system as you enjoyed in Mass Effect. And there's equipment that you can swap out. Really, it's a lot like an RPG. But then, the original roleplaying game grew out of war gaming. In much the same way that dolphins and sharks evolved dorsal fins independant of each other, the changes from the campaign in DoW 1 somehow bring the game into the world of the RPG. And this is great, because it lets Dawn of War be a fun RPG without almost all of the bullshit.

No towns to walk around or NPCs to interact with. No walking around the world wondering where the fuck to go to next. Very little traditional grinding -- you can clear a map, or you can shortcut to the boss. Video cutscenes that are just long enough. And to top it all off, I get to play it with my friend from back west who I used to play Dawn of War 1 comp stomps with.

Having said all that, the game does have some issues. For one, what I've seen of the story so far is just there as an excuse to keep fighting (to be fair, this does match the setting very well). The game as is could never manage the kind of stories that, say, Suikoden 2 or the aforementioned Mass Effect pull off. The boss battles do go on for probably longer than they need to, but then, so do all boss battles.

Most of my complaints are like this -- things that I would have liked to see but which are not strictly necessary to the game. I would have liked to see a broader loot tree. I would have liked to see a more involved story. But you know what? The compactness of it is a selling point. It's virtue lies in how boiled down it is.

In many ways, I think this game is the PC answer to the console tactics games. It has the same general misson based structure without fooling around in the middle. Yes, you lose the large armies to manage. However, I've never been able to adequately play a tactics game co-op with friends. There's a lot of juice that comes from saving somebody else's ass in real time, just ask Left 4 Dead.

As I said, it's not a perfect game nor is it my absolute favorite game. But then, I do love cooperative games, and I love RTS games, and this marries the two in a very satisfying way that I've been looking for for a while now.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Blue Lacuna - Usable Interactive Fiction

I've just spent the past several days Blue Lacuna. I won't say go play it now; it will suck you in and you may be in the middle of something. Also, it may not be your kind of game. I do, however, encourage you to at least take a look at it when you have a free moment.

Blue Lacuna (which you can get here) is a work of Interactive Fiction(IF) -- the modern evolution of now-ancient text games like Zork or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Unlike graphical adventure games like Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island, IF games stick with the text based interface. The games have little to nothing in the way of graphics, and all interaction is typing things like "get rope" and "go west" (or "west" or simply "w" to the veterans).

Interactive Fiction is not a big budget business. It's no longer a commercially viable medium; Interactive Fiction is kept alive today by an incredibly active amateur community. As a medium it doesn't focus on graphical innovation. It can't because there are no graphics. Instead, all of the innovation centers around gameplay and story. Blue Lacuna is a wonderful example of this kind of innovation.

Some of Blue Lacuna's biggest innovations are in the areas of developing relationships through interaction with NPCs and in player decisions affecting gameplay. Others have written about this in far more depth than I can and I encourage you to read more there. What I'm going to talk about here are the simple gameplay innovations that are added -- the convenience measures that breathe some fresh air into gaming via typing.

The standards of the IF medium go back a ways, back to when games were expected to be hard. In many works of IF, you have to guess at the right verb -- "eat" or "taste", "punch" or "hit"? A good game is well tested so that the game recognizes most different words. Still, it can often be very difficult to pick the important details out of a scene -- to know what can be interacted with (is that painting important?), and what is just window dressing.

Blue Lacuna does something very simple to make this style of interaction more acceptable to the modern gaming pallete: it highlights keywords. For instance, the first description reads:

The tutorial pretty much says it all (and incidentally, the tutorial is another innovation that is missing from almost all modern IF, and is well done on top of it). Every object that you need to interact with to get through the game and to get most of the story is highlighted in blue so you're very rarely stuck guessing at words and objects that may be important, trying to lift the bed because you're stuck, etc.

The other big gameplay innovation in Blue Lacuna is player movement. Moving around the world in IF is generally a fairly klunky affair. Drawing from the dungeon-crawling beginnings of the medium, most interactive fiction worlds are set up as a series of rooms laid out in a grid. The player navigates between rooms by moving in compass directions -- east, west, north, south, southeast, up, down, etc. Older games often had mazes - dating back to Adventure's maze of twisty little passages, where players were expected to take graph paper and map out the dungeon.

In Blue Lacuna, you navigate by keywords and landmarks instead. Rather than going "east", you go to the "forest" or the "rocks" or the "rise" etc.

This offers a more intuitive way for players to remember what lies in relation to what especially when the number of "rooms" gets fairly large. This approach actually comes close to what graphical adventure games ended up doing -- certain objects in the world would be "exits" and when you clicked on them you would move to another location. The following image shows exits in a screen from "The Secret of Monkey Island" by LucasArts:

In addition to allowing navigation by keyword, the game also contains a compass that you find relatively early on -- when you open the compass, the game reverts to a traditional model -- all the sudden you can "go east" instead of typing "forest". When you close the compass, the game reverts to the default state.

In addition to the basic keyword navigation Blue Lacuna also features "Landmarks" which are general areas that you can quickly travel between. You might, for example, want to travel from where you are back to the "bedroom" but don't want to have to type "stairs", then, "bridge", then, "ladder", then, "door", etc. This works much the same way having a map with quick travel points might work. It cuts down on a lot of tedious typing.

Keyword navigation and highlighting important objects are two mechanics that could improve nearly all interactive fiction. Both features not only make the medium more accessible to the novice, they also cut down on frustration for the experienced IF player. I applaud Aaron Reed for his inclusion of these elements and encourage all those who create Interactive Fiction to think about including usability mechanics like these in their works.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wii Fit - Motivational Mechanics

Recently my fiancee and I got a new Wii Fit. We'd been looking for one for a few weeks and we finally saw them on sale. For the past three days I have been on an exciting fitness journey with my Wii Fit, and I have come to share my experiences with you, the reader.

The genius of the Wii Fit is that it does essentially everything in its power to make you want to get fit. I would be lying if I said that I am in tip-top shape. The fact of the matter is that I have only ever been thin while I was a heavy smoker, and I have never really gotten into regular excercise when it wasn't a part of a medically mandated physical therapy plan.

The reason that physical therapy worked for me was because I had 1) serious back issues that prevented me from being productive 2) a damn good physical therapist 3)enough free time to set aside half an hour a day to exercising.

Twice a week I would go to the therapists office, he would walk me through my exercises to make sure I was doing them right, and he would check in on the progress I made. When I had been working he would approve, when I slacked he would know about it. After a while I noticed the progress I was making myself. After that not only did I do my exersices, I actually pushed myself. About a month after I stopped therapy, I stopped doing my exercises.

The Wii fit provides the same kind of structure that my therapist did. For one, it gives me a small scale pat-on-the-back reward message every day that I do it, and reinforces more if I practice every day. This is just enough to make me think about how to fit the Wii fit into my daily schedule, or at least has been enough to do so for the past few days.

Next, it provides a look at progress over time. I can see where I started weight wise (I'm not telling), and "Wii Fit Age"-wise (40) . While my weight has not dramatically decreased over the past three days, I have noticed a significant drop in my Wii Fit Age (to 27) and, you know what? This is enough to make me want to keep playing.

Thirdly, it actually monitors my progress in each of the exercises I'm doing. Now, I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that a balance board is going to tell me whether I'm doing an exercise exactly right or not, but between the balance feedback and the model of the person doing the exercises on screen I no longer have the crippling "I can't be doing this right" feeling that I get when trying to do exercises on my own.

The last thing I want to talk about is the co-motivation it uses. Every time you see your score on a particular exercise, you see it in a full leaderboard of everyone who uses the wii fit. If my fiancee does better than me in an activity this gives me a powerful motivation to do a little better. It also periodically asks us to notice how the other one is doing, encouraging co-motivation outside of the game as well.

As my studies have shown me, motivation is the biggest component to education and behavior change. You want someone to do something, you have to make sure they want to do it. So far, Wii fit is doing a great job of really making me want to spend a little time every day exercising.

At the moment I don't have any real criticisms of Wii Fit. Yes, it requires exercise but I signed on for that. Yes, it's more of a tool than a game but, you know what, it's a really neat tool for motivating exercise at a fraction of the cost of a personal trainer. What I would love to see is an in-gym version of this kind of program with the same constant support, schedule flexibility, and convenience factor.

We'll see how I feel about it in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tower Defense

My first exposure to the tower defense genre was the bonus tower defense map included with either Warcraft III or the expansion. I'll give a short description of tower defense shortly but the quickest way to get a handle on the genre is to go play desktop tower defense. Seriously, go now. It will take you like five minutes. Then you can skip the next paragraph.

Tower Defense is a fairly self-explanatory concept. You are in charge of guarding some objective against waves of enemies, which I'm going to call creeps. You do this by building and upgrading towers. Towers shoot at creeps and, depending on the game, might be used as walls to guide creep progress. Every time you kill a creep, you get more money to build more towers. Every time a creep gets through, you take damage. Take enough damage and you lose.

It's a survival game. The creeps themselves get harder and harder to kill and/or more numerous with every wave. Typically different creeps will be resistant to some forms of damage and weak against others. This forces players to build different kinds of turrets and to generalize their builds.

Just this past year commercial tower defense games have started to hit the market. Defense Grid is a great example; a well playing, polished looking game available over at Greenhouse for $20. Lock's Quest, a recent DS game, has many aspects of tower defense gameplay. And, of course, there are a few iPhone implementations, Fieldrunners capturing the feel very well and Crystal Defenders cashing in on the FF Tactics license (don't get me wrong, it's still fun, but I paid for fieldrunners).

This rising tide of tower defense games is due in large part to the success of Desktop Tower Defense. RTS map mods and flash tower defense games have been around for years as I mentioned above, but Desktop Tower Defense refined the formula and somehow caught a wave of public opinion that got it played by a lot of game designers.

Tower defense is fun. Incredibly fun. When you think about it it would almost have to be -- otherwise it would still be some forgotten mod map on someone's hard drive. Instead, someone saw something fun they could do with an RTS engine and map editor and other people, finding it fun, made flash versions. These were refined until commercial game designers took notice, and wanted to make something fun. Tower defense isn't engineered to be entertainting, it's naturally selected.

What makes it fun? First, tower defense successfully captures the feeling of base building in an RTS without nearly as much micromanagement. Now, a lot of people like playing RTS's and like micro. I can find myself in that mood from time to time. But mostly I like building. I was a big SimCity fan and when I played the single player Starcraft campaigns, my favorite maps were the ones where you had to defense yourself from a neverending Zerg onslaught until the dropships showed up. Tower defense distills this aspect of play, letting the player stay focused on base building, allowing them to feel that groove instead of having to constantly switch attention between offense and defense.

The really addictive quality of Tower Defense is not, however, the building. Rather, it is the constant presence of the approaching apocalypse. Destruction is always around the corner, the tide is always rising. I've always loved this element when I find it in games -- one of my favorite examples being Fantasy Flight's remake of the classic Arkham Horror board game. This keeps the players constantly engaged. There is no downtime in tower defense. You are always on guard, always just short of the resources you need. It's a feeling similar to survival horror, a genre that some say has been on the wane for a while now. You are going to die, it's just a matter of when. I hear Gears of War 2 has a mode that captures this feeling as well.

Tower Defense recaptures that fear of death and the feeling of going against impossible odds that I love about hardcore games. Moreover, it is a genre in its infancy, a genuine mutation into something different from the nth generational shooters, rts's, etc. I'm excited about its future.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Game Design Notes: Persona 4 - Dating Sim Technology

I never actually got the chance to play Persona 3. My attention span at the time it came out was dangerously short. I did get to experience a fair amount of it, though; my roommate at the time played the hell out of it. I enjoyed it vicariously, watching for long stretches of play and squeezing gameplay stories of of him.

You see, I love roguelikes. I have a longstanding fascination with tarot imagery. Throw in my guilty appreciation for dating sim style gameplay and you can understand why I jumped at the chance to play Persona 4. Sure, the characters no longer shoot themselves in the head to cast magic spells but aside from that disappointing change, Persona 4 is a successful iteration on a formula designed to appeal specifically to me.

For those who have not played either game, each modern Persona game is essentially two different games that play off of each other. The first is a straight up roguelike dungeon crawl. You spend your time going deeper and deeper (or higher and higher) into a dungeon. Most floors are randomly generated each time you enter them so you can't just memorize the map. Each floor carries more deadly enemies, and more valuable treasures, than the last. Occasionally there is an extremely powerful boss monster.

The second game is a dating sim/visual novel. Each day is divided into discrete parcels of time that the character can spend enhancing statistics like "courage" and "understanding", earning money, or socializing with other characters some of whom are friends some of whom are potential love interests.

The two halves are tied together first by the main plot. Both games have periodic time limits where, if some threat is not dealt with in the dungeon, there are consequences for one character or another in the "real" world. These are essentially the chapters of the game.

The halves are also tied together by the central "persona" mechanic. The system is, in fact, fairly complex. It boils down to this: player can take on the personality aspects of people he's formed relationships with, and can use those aspects in combat. For example, if he makes friends with the athelete, he can choose to be strong and resilient. The more he understands the athelete, the more resilient he can be.

This core idea is a little obscured behind some arcane tarot references and a "gotta catch 'em all" list of gods and monsters. If you're really into mystical symbolism, and I happen to be, you might get it kick out of it. I could also see where you could find the amount of detail needlessly tedious. Then again, needlessly detailed tedium is a hallmark of JRPGs.

But I digress. My point is that the dating sim half of the game provides a compelling way to link the characters and caring about the characters and the story to the gameplay itself. In general, dating sim technology is a powerful engine that can be hooked to a variety of different game types.

For an example of this take a look at one of my guilty pleasure games - Dead of Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball. Here's what you need to know: yes, it is blatant exploitation of women and their bodies. However, the core game is also fundamentally fun. In a nutshell you have to get a partner to join your team and you have to keep the partner happy so that her AI will play well. The hardest partners to please are also the best players. And to sweeten the pot, you can play as any of the players so any swimsuits you give away you can then use when you play as the other character.

Dating sim style play hooks into motivations that I don't think are fully tapped yet for gaming, unlike experience systems, high scores, other more common motivation mechanics.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Game Design Notes: Warhammer Age of Reckoning - Public Quests

There is a common misconception that people like to play MMOs because people like to interact with other people when they play games. It's true that people like to play MMOs; World of Warcraft hit 11 million subscribers not too long ago. It's also true that people can find playing games with others extremely fulfilling -- my own experience with tabletop rpgs, Left 4 Dead, and even running instances with friends in World of Warcraft has taught me that. However, many players, myself included, often enjoy playing by themselves.

People play MMOs for the recognizition by other players, not for the interaction with them. City of Heroes' badge system and, more recently,WoW's achievement system, give nods to this style of play. Vanity mounts, titles, and sexy, glowing gear all make sure everyone around you knows how awesome you are.

There are, of course, exceptions. The first are large raiding guilds and the second are small groups like my guild: friends organized social-network style where every member of the group knows at least one other person face-to-face. These kinds of groups, however, have something that pick up groups do not: they're not full of strangers.

Pick up groups are terrible 90% of the time. I don't care if you're playing WoW, Team Fortress 2, or tabletop d&d. If you're playing with a bunch of people whom you havn't vetted then you have a high chance of ending up with someone who just doesn't mesh with your style of play -- or sometimes with any style of play. In the real world you would not go into business with four random people off the street. You wouldn't plan a roadtrip by posting a LFG notice on the local bullitin board (ok maybe you would, but you would probably be desperate and would expect some issues along the way; there's a reason hitchiking is illegal).

People form social groups for a reason: to find like minded people easily and to keep people you can't work with at arms length. While mainstream mmos are getting better, many games still throw you into a world and expect you to commit to partying with strangers. Noone wants to do this. Occasionally you get really desperate and either go looking for someone else to help you or answer some msg or plea to help. This usually results from the same kind of desparation that makes people think it's ok to ride in the same car with a stranger for 8 hours, and usually has about the same results.

Enter Warhammer: Age of Reckoning's Public Quests. In brief, these are quests that you can participate in simply by being in the right place. You don't need to join a group, you don't need to start an instance. All you have to do is show up and start killing guys.

These quests have multiple stages. The first stage is almost always soloable by someone of average level for the zone. The second stage is sometimes soloable but is often a 2 person gig. The third stage requires multiple people -- anywhere from 2 up depending on the difficulty and the scale.

Participating in these as a solo artist can eventually give you access to some nice reward gear. Being involved when the third leg of the quest is completed gets you in a drawing for some pretty swank gear.

The result of this is that solo players come to the first leg of the quest to defeat it. If there are a few solo players there together, they might stick around for the second leg. As happened with me twice, they might start hanging close to one another -- a tank tanking, a dps staying farther away and picking things off. If they succeed at closing out the third leg they might stick around for the last section, other players might even come in an join for the chance at the loot roll.

In other words, it encourages players to get to know each others play styles without putting up a requirement to party that gates so many single players. This is not a perfect solution, but it does provide not only something for solo players to do without committing time to strangers, it also provides a foundation for building relationships organically, the way real people do.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Game Design Notes:Castlevania Order of Ecclesia - Discrete Dungeons

The new Castlevania(Order of Ecclesia) now has a world map instead of the giant sprawling single castle -- a first for the descendants of Symphony of the Night. This is a big departure and is, as I see it, part of a larger movement.

Having played only a few hours of Ecclesia, There are some problems, but they're not as bad as I thought they'd be. For example, playing the same section feels a little more monotonous this way. This, however, is my own dementia I think and not a wider issue. I thought that I was going to be dissapointed with It's still really hard to get to certain places, and the individual chunks are still about as big as the distinct different parts of the castle, it's just way easier to get to them. In general, the advantages outweigh the bad.

Some of the benefits are obvious. First, it's easier to get everywhere, which I was skeptical about at first but now consider to be a complete win. From a game design standpoint, it makes it much easier to vary up the world as well. Fitting everything onto 1 map is a huge design constraint that this game just doesn't have to deal with.

There are, however, two BIG wins. First, you ALWAYS know where you're supposed to go next. Metroidvania games have in general suffered from at least one or two moments of game where you have to scratch your head and try to remember where, "mist could pass," after you get the ability to turn into mist. Some of these are good -- special weapons etc. reward players who remember all these little places. However, gating the main progress of the game with these is another matter entirely. The new design lets them put in special areas you can access with special powers without making overall game progress require you to routinely search the castle for places you might have missed.

The second big win is that successes come in smaller packages now. Previous castlevania games, and most video games for that matter, have put the boss at the end of the level in order to give the player a sense of accomplishment. Several Ecclesia bosses are at the BEGINNING of the level. This gives the player something to overcome right off the bat that gives them the juice to play through the rest of the level. After all, the boss doesn't need to be at the end if getting to the end is all the sudden its own little accomplishment.

Order of Ecclesia is not the only game to make the break towards bite-sized game play. I've already mentioned how the new Prince of Persia has an open world style, and how the sections of that open world are all bite-sized challenges. Persona 4 has done something similary, taking the single tower dungeon and broken it up into several smaller dungeons -- moving from Nethack to Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. It's a trend that started back sometime around the original Mario 64, and has, I think, grown as games have become more mainstream. By parcelling out wins this way the games remove the need for a certain delay of gratification on the part of the player and, I think, is part of the same trend that is making games easier as a whole. Is it good for games and gamers? Maybe. But no matter what I think, it's the direction the industry as a whole is going and is worth paying attention to.